Thursday, November 21, 2013

New Blog at Wordpress

This post is to inform the small readership I have here, as well as the occasional visitor from the spurts of traffic I get from time to time, that my writings have relocated to a new Wordpress blog, where I will be posting from now on.

Here's the link: Skeptical Inquests: A Blog by Nathan Dickey

My plan for this new blog is to provide content that is much more blog-reader-friendly. This means posts that are much shorter and to the point. Occasionally there will probably be long posts, but not consistently. Blog readers, after all, don't want to read long essays when they click on new posts in their subscription feeds. This site has served my purpose of being a place for me to keep all the essays I've written in one place, but other sites serve that need better. My favorite is Academia.edu, and I encourage followers who are interested in longer treatments of the various subjects I've studied to broswe through my profile there. Thanks for reading, and I do hope you'll subscribe to my new Wordpress blog.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The $100 Apocalypse

According to the online rantings-and-ravings of one doomsday evangelist and conspiracy nut, printed money can be used to predict the end of the world. “This is a mega news flash,” he declares.

The evangelist’s name is Jonathan Kleck, a man who has a penchant for folding US currency in creative and neat ways to form images which he construes as depicting major disasters that have occurred in recent US history, such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (although he believes that the US government, with the help of Satan of course, played a central role in executing that attack).

Kleck has acquired the brand new $100 bill of US currency which went into circulation on October 8, 2013. In a recent YouTube video entitled “New $100 Bill Decrypted – Nuclear Devastation,” Kleck folds the bill to reveal a terrible truth about events to come within our lifetime. He claims to have discovered that a nuclear missile is going to strike a body of water and release a doomsday shroud of radioactivity that will send millions of people away to meet their maker.

Kleck clearly has a fetish for inverted pyramid shapes. He folds his bills to form a five-sided image with a point at the end, reminiscent of a baseball field’s home plate. Then he turns the pentagonal bills upside down and superimposes them on drawings of a “Mendes Goat” (an inverse pentagram with all the vertices connected by lines). The Mendes Goat has long been associated with the occult and, more recently in historical terms, to modern Satanism. Kleck is trying to show us that the ominous images he has revealed expose the plans of the “bad guys” in league with Satan.

When he folds his $100 bill in this manner, we see what looks like a missile – complete with very distinct fins, fuselage and head – entering a body of water:

The missile detonates as it enters the water, precipitating the nuclear catastrophe that our self-described prophet guarantees will come in the near future. Kleck is even convinced that the new bill shows more than just the initial impact of the missile on water. He believes it depicts the resulting devastation as well. To show this, he has used a computer to separate and isolate each layer of the ink that is used in the printing of the bills. He plays with different resolutions that present different interference patterns on the bill’s picture:


To the eyes of Jonathan Kleck, the images above look like a bomb hitting water. To somebody else, it could look like something else entirely. Not everyone sees Jesus on a piece of grilled cheese, either.

Bells and Whistles

Like most paranoid schizophrenics, Kleck appears to believe that his ominous interpretations of images on US currency are in fact not his own subjective interpretation. He is convinced that the images he sees on the money are messages straight from God of what will transpire in the future. According to his website (where he refers to himself in the third person), Kleck believes he has been divinely chosen to deliver “Prophetic Utterances” and supernaturally gifted with the ability to decrypt secret messages that only he has the ability to decode and which line up with his prophetic utterances. His spiritual gifts were delivered to him by the archangel Michael, who visited Kleck personally. His inflated view of himself is reflected in the first line one sees when visiting his website, where he describes himself as a “Bell Ringer for Jesus Christ”:

If Jesus Christ is still alive, he should be quite capable of ringing his own bells. He is supposed to be made of magic, after all. But it is amusing to imagine Jesus deciding at some point that he needs someone to ring bells for him. “Who should I choose? I know! I want that guy who folds money bills.”

And what’s with the double-helix strand of DNA ejecting a rainbow? Perhaps he has decoded a message from God in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon? Probably not, but that would be a much better influence than the Bible. “The lunatic is on the grass” indeed.

As it turns out, DNA holds a prominent position in Kleck’s catalogue of crazy beliefs. He has a bizarre theory about the structure of human DNA being tied into the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. According to him, each individual tower represents 23 chromosomes. When superimposed on images of DNA markers, he thinks both towers strikingly resemble the markers. This gave him an idea that he enthusiastically latched onto. The Twin Towers together stand for 46 chromosomes, a complete DNA schematic that disposes of any duality. And if you read Psalm 46 in the Bible, says Kleck, there are clues to be found about the reason the Twin Towers were destroyed. He finds it significant that President Obama recited Psalm 46 in a memorial speech he delivered at Ground Zero on September 11, 2011:

Come behold the works of the Lord who has made desolations in the Earth.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the Earth.
He breaks the bough and cuts the spear in two.
He burns the chariot in fire.
Be still and know that I am God.
Apparently, that recitation alone is enough to convince the hopelessly credulous Kleck that Obama is the Antichrist. He has desolated the Holy of Holies by setting himself up as a god on live television. In his video “All Seeing Eye and Obama at Ground Zero = New Species,” Kleck describes how the two sets of DNA have fallen like the two towers to make way for the merging together of the two sets to form a single, 46-chromosome strain:
There’s no more two growing together. They’re saying the harvest is here because they’re saying they are one. That’s why Obama read Psalm 46, because it’s a representation of the two DNAs: 23 on one tower [and] 23 on the other tower equals 46.
The Kleckian upshot of all this is that we humans are impure creatures. Kleck believes that part of us is human and another part of us is something else entirely and that one side of our hybridized nature will soon bow to the other. He elaborated on this craziness in an earlier video entitled “Twin Towers = DNA Markers – The Tares Exposed”:
Twins are something that look the same. They look the same. The Twin Towers are two towers that look the same standing next to each other. There is a parable in the Bible called the Wheat and the Weeds. The Wheat looks just like the Weeds. They’re identical. Now listen to me: When the two stand next to each other, the Wheat and the Weeds, you can’t tell the difference. The only time you can tell the difference is when it’s the harvest. Okay, now listen closely: At the harvest, the Wheat bows down. The Weeds stay straight up.

Now listen to me: Because the only time you can tell the difference between the two is at the harvest, I’m going to prove to you we’re at the harvest. Now watch this. Let’s say we’re humans and we’re standing among these fallen angels. I’m submitting to you that all of us are hybridized to some extent. However, there is a hierarchy of this established hive.

In modern terms, Kleck is basically calling us all Mudbloods. The “evidence” he presents for this claim is laughable. In his examination of the rare $2 bill, he points out what appears to him to be the face of a creature that is half human and half sheep embedded in Thomas Jefferson’s hair. This is supposed to indicate that the “two shall become one,” two different species intertwined in one being. “That’s that condition,” says Kleck, “the human condition changing from half-devil/half-human into one. One creature, I guess.”

He proceeds to illustrate what he is trying to say by showing a photo he took of a Lady Gaga poster display:

“You see the little bump?!” Kleck exclaims. “It’s looking like she’s kind of converting into maybe like an alien . . . The thing is, if you just follow this white line, and you just look at the face, I think you can see that that might resemble kind of an extraterrestrial look.” In Kleck’s opinion, the same “anomaly” is present on the image of Jefferson’s head on the $2 bill. Whatever is happening to pictures of dead presidents on money is happening to celebrities!

One would think Kleck has not concept of Photoshop, or even avant-garde art in general. In his world, there is no interpretative and nuanced filtering of anything he sees, only instant and unthinking affirmative appraisal of anything that he sees as a validation of his morbid fantasies.

Cheaper Revelations

In addition to examining and interpreting the $2 bill and the newly-issued $100 bill, Jonathan Kleck has also “decrypted” images on the $5, $10, $20 and $50 US bills, as well as the different versions of these bills as they have undergone changes through the years. His explanations of the images he has formed from his folding scheme are featured in a long documentary video he produced in early 2013 entitled The Destruction of America.

On the 1985-issue $20 bill he has managed to see what he believes is a representation of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. When he folds up the 1995-issue $20 bill in his special way, he insists that on one side we are looking at an image of smoke billowing around the Pentagon as it was being attacked in 2001, and on the other side an image of the Twin Towers with a similar billow of smoke surrounding the skyscrapers’ top.

Based on his subjective impression of what he sees on his folded $50 bills, Kleck has prophesied that the Hoover Dam will be destroyed by bombs sometime in the near future, an event he guarantees will happen. On the $10 bill, Kleck is convinced he sees a representation of the future destruction of a seven-story building in New York City (he is fairly certain it is Manhattan’s Watchtower Building) via a massive tidal wave.

“I guarantee you this is the destruction of New York,” declares Kleck, “a representation of what’s going to happen. The same as the Twin Towers was on our bill, the same as the Federal Building was on our bill, the same as the Pentagon was on our bill, the Hoover Dam’s on our bill, and now the destruction of New York is on your bill. And there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing you can do to stop this from coming. This is going to happen!”

Not likely. Anyone with even a small dose of critical thinking skills will sleep easy after hearing Kleck share his delusions. He appears incapable of realizing the arbitrariness of personally-preferred inverted pentagram typology and naively unaware of how subjective are his interpretations of his arbitrarily-folded bills.

What should we make of the popular notion that an image of a spider peeks out from the left side of the curved shield on the upper right hand corner of the $1 bill? It is easy to see if one looks for it, and Kleck is a master at seeing whatever he wants to believe. So does the $1 bill predict a future spider infestation of America?

What about the fact that the head of George Washington on the $1 bill can be transformed into a mushroom? What message is Jesus trying to send here, Jonathan?

Kleck’s “prophetic” abilities are nothing more than a case of extreme pareidolia, a well-documented psychological phenomenon. The online Skeptic’s Dictionary defines it as follows:

Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct . . . Under ordinary circumstances, pareidolia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based upon sense perception. For example, it explains many UFO sightings, as well as the hearing of sinister messages on records played backwards. Pareidolia explains Elvis, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster sightings. It explains numerous religious apparitions and visions. And it explains why some people see a face or a building in a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars.
Jonathan Kleck’s pareidolia transforms trees into the shock waves of bombs. It renders what are really buildings turned on their sides by the folding of bills as skyscrapers that loom large in the public consciousness only because of recent tragic events. Kleck believes he sees details printed on the money that simply are not there and which nobody else would see if he had not placed the mental image in the minds of his viewers.

I am interested in following the work of people who espouse bizarre views that lie on the outer fringes of the marketplace of ideas. One reason for my interest is the window some of these individuals present into what the average person is capable of believing if critical thinking is suppressed in their day-to-day mental activities. Jonathan Kleck is one such individual, but he also lies in an uncomfortable “grey zone.” Here is a man who not only is clearly lacking in critical thinking skills, but I strongly suspect he is also suffering from some level of mental illness. His expressed beliefs present us with one of those rare textbook examples of personally-applied pattern-recognition, numerology, subjective validation and pareidolia taken to an extreme. In Jonathan Kleck, we see what can happen to an individual when that part of our brain that seeks out patterns and connections becomes so “loud” that it drowns out other brain functions and as a result becomes completely disconnected from reality. When there is little to no reality-testing happening in our brain, the result can easily be the kind of delusional nonsense that Kleck preaches. But he is simply an extreme example of what the average individual can fall for on a much smaller and less extreme scale.

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Photographing the Soul?

Ever since the days of Descartes in the 17th century, the search for reason-based vindication of the widespread belief in the existence of the human soul has occupied the efforts of those who want to find a point of consonance between faith and reason. If science, the most rigorous form of reason, ever uncovered demonstrable and indisputable evidence that the human soul existed, the scientist who found this data would not only win the Nobel Prize. He or she would become the most famous scientist in human history.

But this envious lot has not fallen to one “scientist” who claimed in late September 2013 that he photographed the human soul leaving its host body. Below is the image that has been making the rounds on the Internet:

As reported by the woo website Conscious Life News, Russian physicist Konstantin G. Korotkov believes he has photographed a person’s soul leaving a body at the moment of the body’s death – an event called “astral disembodiment” – using a bioelectrographic camera. Korotkov’s photographic method is called “gas discharge visualization” (GDV), a technique he developed.

But GDV is just an advanced version of Kirlian photography, a method discovered and developed by the Russian inventor Semyon Kirlian in 1939. Following is a good description of the latter method from Wikipedia.com:

Kirlian photography is a technique for creating contact print photographs using high voltage. The process entails placing sheet photographic film on top of a metal discharge plate. The object to be photographed is then placed directly on top of the film. High voltage is momentarily applied to the metal plate, thus creating an exposure. The corona discharge between the object and the high voltage plate is captured by the film. The developed film results in a Kirlian photograph of the object.
In other words, the process of Kirlian photography involves the interaction of a high discharge of electricity with whatever object is resting on the metal plate. The photographer achieves a picture of the resulting corona discharge (a phenomenon similar to static electricity). Using this technique, photographers can capture dramatic pictures.

However, Kirlian photographers have never photographed something as dramatic as a soul, and Dr. Korotkov is no exception. In fact, given the very definition of this type of photography, physics tells us exactly what we are taking a picture of. Kirlian photography may be a fascinating art form, and many wonderful and beautiful pictures have been produced with this method. But it is by no means imbued with mystery or mysticism. This is how we can say with confidence that Dr. Korotkov has certainly not photographed a person’s “aura” (i.e., spiritual energy that is said to form a halo around an object or person’s body). Many people who have no background in science are unaware of the straightforward and well-established physics definition of Kirlian photography and falsely believe that the technique is defined by its imagined efficacy in photographing human auras.

So here we witness the debacle of a Russian physicist – who surely must understand what Kirlian photography is and what is happening on a molecular level during the Kirlian process – reinforcing the grossly misinformed popular impression of the technique. In a sense, this move is not wholly inscrutable. Educating the public in real science is hard work and can be unrewarding. And the New Age sections of bookstores readily testify to the fact that pseudoscience and woo sell big.

On the other hand, the epistemological leap made by Korotkov is astounding. What self-respecting academic takes pictures of people on their deathbed and then claims with a straight face that he has photographed the dying person’s soul leaving the body? Korotkov even goes so far as to specify which parts of the body the soul vacates first and which body parts are the last to have a soul:

According to Korotkov, navel and head are the parties who first lose their life force (which would be the soul) and the groin and the heart are the last areas where the spirit [is] before surfing the phantasmagoria of the infinite.
This is only slightly more absurd than the claim, put forth by the early 20th century physician Duncan MacDougall, that the human soul has a definite weight of 21 grams, which he believed was determined by weighing a human body before and after death.

What Else Does Korotkov Believe?

Given Korotkov’s alleged credentials as a physicist who, according to his website, has published over 200 papers in leading scientific journals, we can safely assume he once attended a university and has received an appreciable amount of scientific training. Korotkov is a man who is supposed to understand the Scientific Method. Yet he has bought into New Age ideas so strongly that all he has to offer to the world is the augmentation of an existing pseudoscience. For someone who claims he has actually photographed the human soul, it is interesting to note that Korotkov has not even come up with an original idea with which to entertain skeptics at a cocktail party.

To wit: Korotkov recently appeared on a news segment of RT, a Russian-based television network that broadcasts internationally. In the interview, Korotkov has the audacity to say that his beliefs represent something new and cutting-edge:

With our emotions, with our intentions, we can directly influence our environment, our space. Of course, this idea is absolutely new. That’s why it has a lot of criticisms to [it].
If Korotkov thinks this idea is “absolutely new,” he has been living under a rock for a very long time. His formulation of the mind-over-matter idea is more than just a rehashing of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. The idea that we can influence our surroundings with the power of mind is hundreds of years old, if not thousands. Contrary to Korotkov’s assertions, skeptics are not resistant to the mind-over-matter philosophy because we cannot handle its alleged novelty. Skeptics are resistant to the belief in general because it is demonstrably false. And we are resistant to Korotkov’s formulation in particular because he does not even put an interesting new spin on it. At the very least, he could have “Chopra’d” his vocabulary a bit by invoking quantum mechanics to amuse us skeptics.

This is not to say that Korotkov does not use the vocabulary of his education to make his mysticism sound sophisticated and reputable, because this he certainly does quite liberally. And he does share with New Age devotees a major hard-on for the word “energy.” Korotkov’s ability to mix portions of sound science with complex-sounding psychobabble is on full display in an hour-long interview he gave in August 2007 for the New Age talk show Conscious Media Network. Following is an excerpt from that interview:

I’m a physicist with a background in quantum physics. I’ve spent many years in Soviet Union in this type of research. So for me it is actually acceptable to take [the] normal physical definition of the word “energy” . . . In biology, in our research, we use energy that we define as “energy of electrons.” So we can measure in principle and exactly define the energy of electrons, and typically it’s measured in electron-volts. And then we can tell that we have electrons in the ground state in organic molecules and we have excited electrons that have extra energy. And this energy may be accepted by light, because when we accept light . . . we increase in the energy of our body. It means that we increase the energy of particular specific electrons. [In the] same way, we can increase this energy by electromagnetic impulses, by different fields, and these electrons may be transformed from one part of the body to another part of the body. So, when we tell about energy – energy circulation, energy movement, energy mediums – we mean that we define this energy as electron transfer along protein complexes in organic tissues and in particular in connective tissues . . . And of course we have a lot of electron transfer due to electrolysis because in our connective tissues we have always some water molecules, and these water molecules allows to organize electron transfer. And this is from our point of view the basis of all this energy transfer, energy work . . . And our brain, our mental concentration, would allow us to redistribute those electrons from one part of the body to another part of the body. And in Oriental parts it is known as energy movement along chakras, along meridians, along Kundalini.
Korotkov cleverly denies the existence of meridians, which are mythical paths through which many practitioners of alternative medicine, especially acupuncture, believe that “qi,” or life-force, flows through the human body. He even expresses his distaste for the term “energy-healing,” perhaps in the interest of appearing scientifically respectable. In Korotkov’s words, “The problem is that no one was able to define meridians, because they don’t exist. We don’t need some mythological process.” But this is just a convenient way for him to use the language and trappings of science to put clothes on his naked emperor of pseudoscience. He does not deny these phenomena itself, only the mechanism by which it occurs. The effect of meridians and chakras and energy healing are in his view very real, but caused by physical and not otherworldly processes. This makes his claims non-falsifiable and therefore non-scientific by definition.

It should also be noted that if Korotkov is really well-versed in physics and the scientific understanding of energy, he blatantly betrays his disingenuousness and willingness to mislead when he fails to correct a huge error made by host Regina Meredith. Near the end of the interview she states, “This is a universe made of energy. We can’t ignore this fact anymore. Matter is almost irrelevant compared to the subject of energy.” Meredith should read up on the Special Theory of Relativity and educate herself about what e = mc2 means. Matter is energy, albeit frozen.

Dimming the Lights

The reason skeptics and critical thinkers should critique the assertions of pseudoscientists is not to mock the pseudoscientist himself or win an argument. We should expose the flaws in their claims for the benefit of people who would otherwise buy into their declarations and base their life on the worldview they promote. One of the gullible individuals swallowing Korotkov’s claims about soul photography presents us with a case study in how pseudoscientists can take advantage of credulous people who have suffered personal tragedy in their lives.

A man who calls himself Alexander Light created a video singing the praises of Korotkov and his magical camera. With the epic strains of Lisa Gerrard’s composition “Now We Are Free” playing over the video’s text and pictures, Mr. Light tells us that his mother died when he was 17 years old. He believes that the spirit of his mother is still with him, and that this is evidenced by a photograph “of my son and I.” According to Light, “[T]he spirit of my mother and two males are hugging us.” Below is the photograph from his video.

There is nothing strange or new about this photo. It is a boringly typical faux ghost picture, the kind easily produced when somebody snaps a photo inside a smoky room and photons from the camera’s flash bounces off the smoke particles. The effect is eerie, but well documented and accounted for by simple physics. But Mr. Light sees in this picture “a great confirmation for myself that all those years my mother was all around me.” He concludes the video by personally thanking Dr. Korotkov for his work in spirit photography and bitterly adds that “humanity do not [sic] believe you unless you have a ‘DR’ in front of your name .. hope this video helps others.”

My riposte to this sentiment is that, on the contrary, it is surprising that a large proportion of the general public harbors a strong fear and distrust of real scientists. Light is here complaining about skeptics and critical thinkers who are interested in looking for facts in the right place. And like so many other New Age devotees, Light is latching onto the words of a scientist when the latter reinforces his own belief system, but is willing to dismiss the work of the vast majority of scientists as “close-minded,” bound to the strictures of a reality that True Believers would rather not be a part of. For gullible and credulous believers like Light, Wonderland is far more interesting.

Losing close family members to death is a bad experience for skeptics and believers alike. The desire to believe that deceased loved ones are still here with us in some form is understandable. But consider how far Mr. Light and many others like him are going to make themselves feel better about personal loss. Dealing with a death in the family by clinging to supernaturalism actually demeans and belittles the meaning of the lives that are gone. Reality may not be as satisfying as fantasy, but it is orders of magnitude more fulfilling.

Shame on you, Korotkov, for disingenuously feeding off people’s anxieties and fueling desires to believe in the false hope that their dead family members are still alive.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Refuting Quantum Spirituality

It is impossible for anyone to dispel his fear over the most important matters, if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but instead suspects something that happens in myth. Therefore, it is impossible to obtain unmitigated pleasure without natural science.
~ Epicurus

[T]here are idols which have immigrated into men’s minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration. These I call idols of the theater, because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion. Nor is it only of the systems now in vogue or only of the ancient sects and philosophies that I speak; for many more plays of the same kind may yet be composed and in like artificial manner set forth, seeing that the most widely different errors have causes which are for the most part alike.
~ Sir Francis Bacon, New Organon (1620)

Dance this world away
~ Music artist Rick Springfield, from the 1985 album Tao

Introduction

People believe in and worship many kinds of gods. In the West, the god most commonly worshipped is the Judeo-Christian-Islamic deity. This god is said to participate in the universe in a very active way, being responsible for everything that happens in the universe and listening to every thought of every intelligent creature simultaneously. While there may be lesser gods who fit this basic description, for convenience we can refer to this model of deity as the “Abrahamic God.” This is a being that surely would be detectable by human observation – and should have been detected long before now – if he existed in reality. The fact that the Abrahamic God has never been detected allows us to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that such a god does not exist [1].

But the Abrahamic God is just one particular kind of god among many others that have been and continue to be postulated. In this essay I undertake to tackle a type of spirituality which has become quite prevalent in Western culture today. I refer to what some have termed “quantum spirituality,” a body of belief which asserts that a separate reality lies beyond the material world revealed by science. Ironically, believers in this variety of otherworldliness have claimed a connection between their spirituality and quantum mechanics. As I will show in this essay, a scientific examination of the quantum spiritualists’ claims do not hold up against what professional physicists know about quantum mechanics through observation and experiment.

One approach to supernaturalism prevalent among many professional theologians and theistic scientists today is a “quantum theology” which conceives of a non-interventionist higher power. According to this model, the higher power does not violate natural law and therefore never performs any miracles [2]. Quantum theology differs from quantum spirituality in two respects. First, unlike its spiritualistic counterpart, science-based theology is a trend that has largely been confined to professional circles and has made little to no impact on the general public. Second, whereas quantum theology represents an effort on the part of theologians to reconcile their theological beliefs with the findings of modern physics, quantum spirituality seeks to redefine the findings of modern physics, to warp quantum mechanics into something it is not. For the science-savvy theologians, science is something their religious systems must answer to. For the quantum spiritualists, science must be made to conform to their mystical beliefs about the fundamental nature of life, the universe and everything.

The Pop Culture New Age Craze

The miracle-friendly and personalized New Age spiritualism, which made a significant impact on various Western countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s, has not come close to dying down in popularity and mass appeal in modern popular culture. This is evidenced by the reception of two very successful documentary films that appeared in the last decade, following in the tradition of earlier spiritualism-and-science films that have been well-received by the public, such as Bernt Amadeus Capra’s 1990 film Mindwalk. The first of these more recent offerings is 2004’s What the Bleep Do We Know!? [3] This modestly funded independent film grossed $10 million, not counting its several spin-off products. Even more successful was the 2006 documentary film The Secret [4]. The accompanying book by Rhonda Byrne [5] maintained the top spot on the New York Times Best Seller list for nearly 150 consecutive weeks.

What the Bleep Do We Know!? and The Secret are both careful in avoiding any suggestion that a personal god exists, but are not so careful in remaining scientifically respectable. Both films suggest that there exists a greater power of some kind, a cosmic consciousness into which we humans are capable of tuning with our minds, and the authors of both films look to the science of quantum mechanics to justify their claims. Because there is such a great deal of apparent mysteriousness in quantum mechanics, arising from the spooky phenomenon of the observer and the observed appearing to become strongly intertwined, the argument is made that “we create our own reality” just by thinking.

In an effort to lend scientific credibility to their claims, the makers of What the Bleep Do We Know!? bring in PhD scientists such as Amit Goswami and Fred Alan Wolf, among others, for on-screen interviews. Goswami, now retired from his professorship at University of Oregon where he taught physics for thirty-two years, received a PhD in theoretical nuclear physics from Calcutta University in 1964. Wolf received a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1963. Both Goswami and Wolf are well-educated physicists, so whether they are deliberately misrepresenting the findings of quantum mechanics to promote their personal beliefs (and make a lot of money) or whether they are actually ignorant of some details of quantum mechanics is a matter of debate.

There are various data points one can use to support either possibility. On the more cynical side, it may be pointed out that the three directors of What the Bleep Do We Know!? are all students of mystic and channeler J.Z. Knight, who in the film is featured channeling a 35,000 year-old being called Ramtha. This has led some reviewers to criticize the film as a promotional recruitment tool for Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment, an institution founded and operated by Knight. The directors deny this charge, insisting that the film is their own independent work. Of course, whether Bleep was intended as a recruitment film or not has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the film’s claims and thesis, which must be evaluated on their own terms. Still, it does stand as an eyebrow-raising bit of information.

On the other hand, Amit Goswami strikes me as one who sincerely believes what he says in the film (Fred Alan Wolf just strikes me as a bit insane, a “mad scientist” of sorts). Many of his ideas come from Indian mysticism, and Hindus tend to believe strongly in their religion. But while Goswami believes he has found a connection between Indian mysticism and physics, the arguments he uses to support his conceptual bridge do not withstand the level of scientific scrutiny Goswami must have at least some currency in, given his credentials. In his book The Self-Aware Universe, Goswami makes many insupportable statements like the following:

As the real experiencer (the nonlocal consciousness) I operate from outside the system – transcending my brain-mind that is localized in space-time – from behind the veil of the tangled hierarchy of my brain-mind’s systems. My separateness – my ego – emerges only as the apparent agency for the free will of this cosmic “I,” obscuring the discontinuity in space-time that the collapse of the quantum brain-mind state represents [6].
No credentialed physicist who has not first put the cart of personal belief before the horse of scientific scrutiny could with a straight face treat as uncontroversial the prospect of consciousness operating nonlocally. The term nonlocal (also called superluminal) has a special meaning in physics; it denotes the motion of bodies or transfer of information between two points, which are unconnected by any common reference frame, at speeds faster than the speed of light. This is forbidden by Einstein’s special theory of relativity and by conservation of energy, both of which have been confirmed by numerous tests to a high degree of accuracy [7]. Quantum mechanics neither requires nor implies the existence of nonlocal or superluminal phenomena. When Goswami later states in his book that “heaven” can refer to this life and that it is “not a place but an experience of living in quantum nonlocality” [8], he abandons the horse altogether and flies off on a magic carpet outside the realm of scientific coherence.

However, Goswami’s scientific work is legitimate enough to make him acknowledge the indispensability of observational testing in science, to which he appeals when he claims that extrasensory perception (ESP) experiments “have been carried out in many different laboratories, and positive results are claimed with both psychic and nonpsychic subjects” [9]. And in addition to admitting that “telepathy has not yet been recognized as a scientifically plausible discovery,” he even understands the skeptical reasoning justifying the wariness of the majority of scientists toward acceptance of psychic phenomena as real: “[ESP] does not seem to involve any local signals to our sense organs and hence is forbidden by material realism” [10]. Thus, rather than necessarily being disingenuous and deliberately misrepresenting quantum mechanics, Goswami’s pseudoscience may be a simple case of compartmentalization, a cognitive dissonance between his beliefs and his scientific work.

For what it’s worth (which is not much) The Secret is much more pronounced and straightforward in its assertions in comparison to the vague claims of What the Bleep Do We Know!? But to the extent that the assertions of the former are more concrete, they are the more egregious [11]. Like Bleep, the film features interviews by PhD physicists and other scientists who lend their enthusiastic support to ideas pushed by the film and book. These include Fred Alan Wolf (introduced above) and John Hagelin, both of whom also appeared in Bleep. Hagelin, a Harvard-trained physicist and three-time presidential candidate on the Natural Law Party ticket, has distinguished himself as a prominent leader in the New Age movement. This is what Wolf and Hagelin has to say about the Secret:

Dr. Fred Alan Wolf: I’m not talking to you from the point of view of wishful thinking or imaginary craziness. I’m talking to you from a deeper, basic understanding. Quantum physics really begins to point to this discovery [of the Secret]. It says that you can’t have a Universe without mind entering into it, and that the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived [12].

Dr. John Hagelin: Quantum mechanics confirms it [the Secret]. Quantum cosmology confirms it. That the Universe essentially emerges from thought and all of this matter around us is just precipitated thought. Ultimately we are the source of the Universe, and when we understand that power directly by experience, we can start to exercise our authority and begin to achieve more and more. Create anything. Know anything from within the field of our own consciousness, which ultimately is Universal consciousness that runs the Universe. . . . So we are the creators, not only of our own destiny, but ultimately we are the creators of Universal destiny. We are the creators of the Universe [13].

Like the PhD scientists who appear in Bleep, the PhD-clad mystics in The Secret have nothing in the way of evidence to support their claims, only assertions. And one does not need to be well-read in physics to see this. For example, for all his talk about creating anything we desire and precipitating our thoughts into reality, Hagelin’s three runs for the presidency in the eight years between 1992 and 2000 not only failed, but he amassed a total of only 236,586 votes [14].

So what is this “Secret” Rhonda Byrne claims to have discovered? It is nothing more than what has been said in the New Age movement for over thirty years: through the law of attraction, we humans create our own reality. This theme is repeated over and over again in the film and in the book (in fact, if Byrne had been more studious in avoiding repetition, her book could easily have been written in ten pages or even less). The Secret turns this familiar New Age philosophy into a self-help tool purporting to demonstrate that anybody can be whoever he or she wants to be. The secret to being rich, beautiful and healthy is simple:

If you can think about what you want in your mind, and make that your dominant thought, you will bring it into your life [15].
In other words, you only have to want wealth, beauty and health. Earnest desire is all that is required on your part; you just have to want whatever it is you are after, and the Secret is guaranteed to work for you. You must think positive thoughts at all times, and whatever you want to happen in your life will come about.

Of course, not everybody is rich, beautiful and healthy. How are we to account for this fact? The explanation offered by The Secret is that people who do not have what they want have not been thinking the right thoughts. They were thinking too negatively. As Byrne explains,

The only reason why people do not have what they want is because they are thinking more about what they don’t want than what they do want. Listen to your thoughts, and listen to the words you are saying. The law is absolute and there are no mistakes [16].
Byrne is not expressing an original epiphany. The same ideas she claims to be revealing to the general public for the first time have been spread by adherents of New Age belief for the past half century. A more general overview of the pop culture New Age craze is in order.

The modern New Age movement began making an impact in Western culture in the early 1960s. An Indian yogi who called himself Maharishi Mahesh Yogi contributed much to the popularization of Eastern mysticism in the West with his new meditation technique called transcendental meditation (TM) [17]. Maharishi, who was trained as a physicist, devoted much of his career to trying to make connections between ancient Eastern beliefs and modern quantum physics. Around the same time he was travelling the United States and Great Britain teaching his synthetic philosophy of ancient mysticism and modern physics, a young Austrian-born American physicist named Fritjof Capra brought this harmonization to an even larger U.S. audience. In his 1975 bestseller The Tao of Physics, still available in the science section of most bookstores, Capra claimed to show that “there is an essential harmony between the spirit of Eastern wisdom and Western science . . . that modern physics goes far beyond technology, that the way – or Tao – of physics can be a path with a heart, a way to spiritual knowledge and self-realization” [18]. Fritjof Capra is the brother of the above-mentioned writer and director Bernt Amadeus Capra, whose film Mindwalk was co-written by Fritjof.

Several of the prominent names in quantum spirituality on the contemporary scene have been misusing modern physics to support New Age beliefs for decades, having started their careers close on the heels of Maharishi’s TM movement and Fritjof Capra’s work. Perhaps most prominent of all today is Deepak Chopra. His bestselling books include such titles as Quantum Healing (1989) [19] and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old (1993) [20]. These and many of his other books rely heavily on the argument that quantum mechanics provides a way for us to create our own reality. In Chopra’s own words, “There is no objective world independent of the observer. . . . [You] use your senses to congeal the [quantum] soup into the solid three-dimensional world” [21].

Not surprisingly, spiritualistic philosophy that claims a connection to quantum physics has a huge presence on the World Wide Web. To take just one subject, an online search for “quantum healing,” the concept first popularized by Chopra over twenty years ago, will turn up hundreds of thousands of hits on the low end of the scale for web sites and blogs preaching the philosophy that our mind is collectively tuned into a reality separate from the material universe (my own search as of this writing turned up 2,260,000 hits).

The Spooky Quantum

The claimed scientific basis for the validity of Eastern mysticism stems from the mysteriousness or “spookiness” supposedly implied by several phenomena observed quantum mechanics. Since an in-depth discussion of all these phenomena would require a book-length treatment, I will confine myself in this essay to just one, with which the purveyors of quantum spirituality are especially enamored: the so-called “wave/particle duality.”

After physicists finish their quantum-level measurements, they find that waves are not the only form in which light appears. The wave phenomenon of light has been well understood since 1800, when Thomas Young’s two-slit interference experiment with light demonstrated that light behaves like waves. Long before Young’s experiment, Isaac Newton proposed that light was made up of particles, which he called “corpuscles.” Throughout the nineteenth century, the corpuscular particle model of light was largely abandoned in favor of the theory that light was fundamentally wavelike.

With the rise of quantum mechanics early in the twentieth century, evidence that light was made up of tiny quanta of energy began to accumulate. The same duality observed in these energy particles, dubbed photons, was observed to be at play in electrons and most other particles: sometimes they behave like particles and sometimes they behave like waves. The “wave/particle duality” therefore refers to the “spooky” observation that whether a measured body behaves like a wave or a particle depends on what is being measured for. When a wavelike property of an object is being measured, the object behaves like a wave. When the position of any particle within the same object is measured, it behaves particle-like. Fritjof Capra sees special significance in this apparent duality for New Age practitioners, even going so far as to equate it with the difference between the concepts of existence and non-existence:

The reality of the atomic physicist, like the reality of the Eastern mystic, transcends the narrow framework of opposite concepts . . . Like the atomic physicists, the Eastern mystics deal with a reality which lies beyond existence and non-existence, and they frequently emphasize this important fact . . . Faced with a reality which lies beyond opposite concepts, physicists and mystics have to adopt a special way of thinking, where the mind is not fixed in the rigid framework of classical logic, but keeps moving and changing its viewpoint [22].
The illusion created by this apparent duality is that an observer can decide for herself what form reality will take by the very act of deciding what property to measure in any given object. That object could be light relayed from a distant galaxy 13 billion years away, when the light first left its source. The implication is that our mind affects the reality of objects, not only in the present moment but in all moments in time and space throughout the universe, past and future. Amit Goswami writes, “The paradox of wave-particle duality – that quantum mechanics have both wave and particle aspects – needs a resolution, which means interpretation and philosophy” [23]. He proceeds to cite the wave/particle duality as one of the features of quantum mechanics which points to another kind of reality transcending the material one. This radical interpretation of the wave/particle duality is typical of how New Age believers try to use science to support their claim that our minds pervade the entirety of the universe and are intimately tuned into it.

Ghostbusting the Quantum World

When a modern-day experimenter performs Young’s light experiment with advanced equipment that is sensitive enough to detect each individual particle of light, or photon, particles will always register on the measuring equipment. When the experiment is set up to measure a given wave property, the experimenter will not see the individual particles. This does not imply a duality between particles and waves. Contrary to the quantum spiritualists’ claims, it implies the very opposite: there is no wave/particle duality.

Consider an experiment in which we send photons from a point source through two slits in a screen (this is the standard experiment used by physicists for measuring the wave effects of particles). On the other side of the screen, an interference pattern of dark and light bands will be seen on the wall where the light strikes after passing through the two slits. If the equipment we are using is sufficiently sensitive, we will see each individual hit on the wall. The first few hits will appear as a highly random and localized pattern. But as the number of hits increases, an interference pattern will form. Eventually the pattern will look just the same as it would if we had simply taken a photograph picture of light in its familiar double-slit wave form. In short, the wave effect is all in the statistics [24].

Larger, classical bodies of everyday experience also act in a manner approximating a wave, a behavior unnoticeable to us on large scales but still determined by the average behavior of huge collections of individual particles which, with the aid of positive feedback, aggregately constitute familiar matter. This behavior of matter is closely connected to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, introduced by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. The “fuzziness” ultimately associated with all material bodies is a consequence of our inability to locate particles while simultaneously measuring their momentum. It is not a consequence of a permeable duality controllable by human minds. Far from being in control of what form reality takes in our observations, physicists often find that their only recourse is to describe objects in terms of a wave rather than localized particles, a pulse rather than a point. Wavelength measurements are what inform us on the extent to which particles can bend around corners, for example. The reason we can hear around corners is because sound is a wave phenomenon (not everything is made up of particles, after all), and waves can only occur in a medium such as air or water as vibrations. The wavelength of sound is long enough to bend around corners, and an easy way to understand this is to picture wavelengths as series of water waves rolling in and bending around a rock near shore. As we all know, water waves can also move around corners in the same way sound does.

Light exhibits the same behavior on large scales, although this is not as obvious. In fact, one of the reasons Newton rejected the wave theory of light, which had been proposed by his contemporary Christiaan Huygens, was that he wrongly believed light could not bend around corners. Although Newton was a great experimentalist, he simply did not look closely enough in this case to see that light does indeed bend. This bending can be seen by holding a card pierced with a small pinhole up to a light (either the sun or an artificial light). If the pinhole is sharp enough, light can be seen diffusing through it. While this phenomenon is often misleadingly referred to as a feature of the “wave property” of light, it is nothing more than the uncertainty principle in action. To send a particle through the pinhole in the card is to localize the particle, and the uncertainty principle states that when an object is localized too much, its momentum becomes uncertain. This uncertainty causes particles (in this case photons) to change direction just slightly as they pass through the pinhole. The fact that we rarely see light bend is simply a consequence of the fact that the individual photons cannot be measured to any appreciably high degree of accuracy. The common-sense rule that “light travels in straight lines” is a crude approximation of large-scale phenomena that does not apply to quantum scales.

When we measure for so-called “wave properties,” what we are seeing is nothing more than the statistical distribution of all the particles being observed. This is how quantum mechanics describes the wave function, which turns out to be just as fictional as the wave/particle duality. The wave function is not a property of any particle or group of particles. It only describes the probability for finding a particle at a particular position in space. Retired particle physicist Victor Stenger, a skeptic of mystical and theistic claims who has written extensively on the spiritualists’ misuse of quantum mechanics, explains why treating the wave function as real leads to certain impossible conclusions:

If you insist on interpreting the wave function as a “real” physical entity such as a water wave, then it moves faster than the speed of light, indeed, infinite speed, violating a basic tenet of Einstein’s special theory [of relativity]. However, if we accept that the wave is just an abstract mathematical entity physicists use to compute the probability for finding a particle at a particular position in space, then there is nothing spooky about it. Abstract things can move as fast as their inventors wish [25].
Stenger goes on to describe a thought-experiment illustrating the non-reality of wave function collapse. Suppose you are living on a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system four light-years away from Earth. A friend of yours on Earth enters your name in a lottery, and you win the million-dollar prize. Your new wealth is analogous to the wave function. At the moment you win, your probability of winning collapses instantaneously and your wealth increases by one million dollars. However, there you are four light-years away in Alpha Centauri, unaware that you have won the Earth lottery. More importantly for practical matters, your bank in Alpha Centauri is unaware of your wealth, because any news-bearing signal sent to you and to your Alpha Centauri bank from Earth at light-speed will take four long years to arrive. You cannot spend the million dollars until those four years have elapsed [26].

The wave function works the same way. It is simply an abstract mathematical description of probability terms that can collapse as much as it needs to – at every point in the universe and instantaneously – without violating special relativity. Real physical entities cannot do this, but mathematical abstractions can.

Despite the strangeness of quantum mechanics and its assault on common sense, it is built on a very solid and precise mathematical basis. I will let the famed physicist Richard Feynman put this achieved level of precision in perspective:

If you were to measure the distance from Los Angeles to New York to this accuracy, it would be exact to the thickness of a human hair. That’s how delicately quantum electrodynamics has, in the past fifty years [since 1930], been checked – both theoretically and experimentally [27].
The earlier quantum mechanics of Niels Bohr, who introduced the quantum theory of the atom in 1913, was very crude in comparison to Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics, two mathematical theories developed in 1925 and 1926 respectively. In 1930, Paul Dirac unified these two versions of mathematical quantum theory into a formalism he called transformation theory. This unified theory is more mathematically advanced than Schrödinger’s version of quantum mechanics, which is the least sophisticated of all the formalisms as well as the most familiar version, studied by physics students at the undergraduate level and written about most in popular physics books. Dirac’s sophisticated method, first introduced in his classic 1930 textbook Principles of Quantum Mechanics, continues to this day to be the way most professional physicists do quantum mechanics. Thus, it is very telling that the term “wave function” appears only once in Dirac’s book, in a short footnote where it is treated dismissively:
The reason for this name [wave function] is that in the early days of quantum mechanics all the examples of these functions were of the form of waves. The name is not a descriptive one from the point of view of the modern general theory [28].
In other words, the mathematics involved in quantum mechanics sometimes resembles that of a wave, but this is nothing more than a residual artifice, a mathematical coincidence. There are no actual waves, only particles. The non-dualistic nature of light was helpfully stressed by Richard Feynman in the first of a series of lectures on quantum electrodynamics given thirty years ago to high school students:
I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles [29].
Some theoretical physicists invoke quantum field theory as a possible counter-argument to this particle picture of reality, saying that fields are more fundamental than particles. In this view, particles are just manifestations of fields. But this is an ontological view that cannot easily be tested for experimentally. The debate over particles and fields among physicists reduces to an argument over preferences. More to the point, it is a debate about reality that often takes an uncomfortable metaphysical turn. All anyone can know about reality is through experiment. Being a non-scientist myself, I prefer the consensus particle model over the field model in the theories physicists are conversant in. For one thing, it is far easier to visualize and simpler to construct, and thus nicely consistent with Occam’s razor. This is also the view of many great physicists, on whose expertise I rely as a non-scientist.

Physical Theory and Philosophical Reality

What I have been describing in the preceding section is all part of standard quantum mechanics. It is a standard picture that is unappealing to those who try to make connections between quantum mechanics and New Age spirituality, because standard quantum mechanics does not support New Age hypotheses (and in fact militates quite strongly against it). Instead, people erroneously read New Age spiritualism into quantum mechanics in highly misleading popular expositions which take advantage of people’s misunderstandings of science.

In a famous remark touching on the difficulty of grasping physics at the quantum level, Richard Feynman once remarked, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics” [30]. I am going to boldly differ with Feynman on this point and say that thousands of people, including even some non-physicists, understand quantum mechanics reasonably well (His admirable and characteristic modesty notwithstanding, Feynman himself understood the science very well!). However, Feynman’s remark does apply very well to those who write about quantum mechanics in abstract philosophical terms, especially those who have no background or expertise in physics. Like any other area of knowledge, scientific or otherwise, it is important that one really understands the subject before talking or writing about it. This is a criterion many gurus of quantum spiritualism do not meet. Much of the popular literature claiming parallels between New Age belief and quantum mechanics are shining examples of a sort of “intellectual anarchy” that is trendy in today’s culture. As Milton Rothman writes,

Everyday anarchy romps through the current intellectual scene: an engineer [young-earth creationist Henry Morris] writes books on evolution, a science fiction writer becomes a psychotherapy guru and founds a new religion [L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Scientology pseudoscience], a psychoanalyst rewrites the laws of celestial mechanics [Immanuel Velikovsky of Worlds in Collision infamy], theologians give pronouncements on physics, physicists write books on theology, and legislators write laws defining life [31].
To this we can add the spectacle of a physician writing books on quantum mechanics. Deepak Chopra has no understanding or background in quantum mechanics, a subject on which he lectures and writes a great deal.

The looseness with which quantum mechanics is treated by armchair physicists who have an ideological bone to pick is one of the justified reasons for the prevailing attitude of dislike toward philosophy currently seen among those in the physics community (this is mostly the case with experimental and practical physicists, but is true even of many theoretical physicists as well). This was not always the case; the current aversion to philosophy among the physics community started in earnest with the post-World War II physicists. Prior to the war, the great physicists of the twentieth century – among them Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrödinger – were very interested in philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics and of the other kinds of physics they studied. This interest was especially strong in Einstein, who philosophized a great deal. This early interest in philosophy among physicists is not surprising or anomalous for, as Rothman points out, “modern philosophy of science is to a great extent the philosophy of quantum theory. . . . quantum theory, in its role as the fundamental theory of matter and energy, makes a number of statements which contradict our ‘commonsense’ notions of nature. Philosophical problems arise when we try to make scientific sense out of these contradictions” [32].

Notwithstanding the conduciveness of quantum theory to philosophical “hashing out,” the group that came into power in the physics community following World War II (led for the most part by Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg and other household names) drastically changed the attitudes of most physicists toward philosophy. They emphasized that all we can really know is what we measure and observe, all the rest being nothing but empty and meaningless talk. If we can make accurate measurements and then describe those accurate measurements with theories, it does not matter what the theory really means. Arguing about the underlying meaning of theories is a waste of breath. The only relevant issue is whether the theory actually works. If it does, then it is “true enough.” If it does not work, it is useless and we toss it out on our way back to the starting board. That is all we really we need to understand, because everything we use our scientific theories for is based on observed objects, not on ontological meaning.

For example, theories are useful for building practical things like electronic circuits. Maxwell’s equations of electricity allow us to construct electric magnetic fields emitted by antennae. Do those fields actually exist? As far as the pragmatic physicist is concerned, they do exist in the sense that they have an observable effect. But no one has ever actually seen an electric field or a magnetic field. All we can see are particles such as electrons being accelerated by the presence of other electrons or other charged particles. That activity is what physicists measure and observe. The description of that measured observation is the theory, in this case a model of fields. If the theory works, then it is good enough and physicists do not lose sleep over questions of whether there is a one-to-one correspondence between theories and ultimate reality.

In his popular 1988 book A Brief History of Time (a book more often purchased and quoted than read and understood), world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking defines the true value of a theory as follows:

I shall take the simple-minded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. It exists only in our minds and does not have any other reality (whatever that might mean). A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations [33].
This description and account of scientific theory represents, in my view, a legitimate philosophical approach to determining the truth value of any proposition in science. Scientists have nothing to fear from philosophy, so long as the science is correctly done first. New Age gurus who misuse and quantum mechanics and cosmology to make a scientific-sounding case for their preconceived spiritualistic beliefs have not satisfied the criteria of a good theory as described by Hawking and most other scientists and philosophers of science. Their strained harmonizations of science and spirituality fail to explain anything we observe.

Indeed, the “job description” of every scientist can be summed up in the single word explain. This is done through careful measurement and observation, and the “laws of physics” are crafted by this explanatory process. In other words, they are inventions of human observers. More and more philosophers of science are beginning to take this view. In the words of philosopher David Armstrong,

There is one truly eccentric view. . . . This is the view that, although there are regularities in the world, there are no laws of nature [34].
This view was independently arrived at by Victor Stenger, the experimental particle physicist cited above, who argues in his important book The Comprehensible Cosmos that there are no laws of physics (if this is not a confirmation that hard science and philosophy can meaningfully touch bases and find consonance with each other, I don’t know what is!). What we misleadingly refer to as the “laws of physics” are simply restrictions physicists place upon themselves. Far from implying that our descriptions of the universe are arbitrary and that we “create our own reality through observation,” this means that scientists must write down their theories and models in such a way that they fit the observed data. Moreover, scientific theories and models must be formulated to be objective; they cannot depend on the subjective point of view of any one observer. Stenger demonstrates mathematically in his book that one can derive most of the physics we know from just one simple assumption, which Stenger calls point-of-view invariance: “The models of physics cannot depend on any particular point of view” [35].

Stenger did not invent the principle of point-of-view invariance. It was originated by a German mathematician named Emmy Noether, who in 1918 proved a theorem now known as Noether’s Theorem [36]. The theorem states that any theory involving space and time, if formulated in such a way that it does not depend on any particular moment in time when the observer starts her clock (meaning the theory is formulated such that it holds as good now as it did at any time in past history), then that theory will by definition contain a quantity that is conserved, namely energy. The theorem applies to position in space as well; if a theory does not depend on any special position in space, conservation of linear momentum necessarily follows. Finally, if no direction in space is singled out as special in the theory, conservation of angular momentum will automatically be conserved in the equations.

Practically all of classical physics follows from just these three conservation laws (the only exceptions are gravity and some electrical forces, but these do not require much more information to be accounted for). All our knowledge of classical physics, acquired from Newton to the twentieth century, follow from conservation of energy, conservation of linear momentum and conservation of angular momentum, and these conservation principles follow in turn from point-of-view invariance. The implications of Noether’s discovery is profound: it means that as far as we know there is no external force – spiritual or otherwise – governing the behavior of matter from above. This also means that the “laws” of nature do not necessarily describe ultimate reality.

Again, this does not imply there is no underlying objective reality independent of our subjective experience, as the peddlers of New Age mysticism would have us believe. On the contrary, point-of-view invariance and Noether’s Theorem show that there must be an objective reality. As Stenger explains,

[Point-of-view invariance] comes simply from the apparent existence of an objective reality – independent of its detailed structure. Indeed the success of point-of-view invariance can be said to provide evidence for the existence of an objective reality. Our dreams are not point-of-view invariant. If the Universe were all in our heads, our models would not be point-of-view invariant. . . .

Point-of-view invariance is thus the mechanism by which we enforce objectivity. If we did not have an underlying objective reality, then we would not expect to be able to describe observations in a way that is independent of reference frames [37].

Even though we currently have no way of knowing what the “true” structure of reality looks like, the existence of an objective reality underlying and informing the imperfect but adequate models we use to describe observations is confirmed every moment of every day by numerous obvious (and some not-so-obvious) impositions of what Rothman calls “laws of denial” (which he compares and contrasts with “laws of permission”). “Choosing between the possible and the impossible is a task carried out by means of the laws of denial, which tie us firmly to reality even as imaginations soar unfettered through the universe” [38]. Contrary to the assertions of Rhonda Byrne and her doctrine of the Secret, not everything we may want to happen can happen. We cannot create our own reality, and the universe does not care what we want or desire. We cannot “dance this world away,” in the words of the song by Rick Springfield.

Note that Rothman uses the word “choosing” in his statement about distinguishing between the possible and the impossible. While it is true the laws of physics are human inventions, they must agree with the observed data to be considered valid. We cannot just “choose” to travel faster than the speed of light no matter how much we may desire to, for example [39]. The theories and models scientists find useful in making testable predictions that can be verified or falsified are anything but arbitrary. Science is not an exercise in postmodernism, which asserts that science is simply one cultural narrative among many and that all narratives are equally true. That is simply not the case in science, for which there is only one narrow set of “narratives” that work, namely the ones that agree with the data.

NOTES

1. Victor J. Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007).

2. For a summary of a multiyear collaborative project in which theistic scientists attempted to reconcile theology with modern science in a series of conference papers published in a five-volume set of books, see http://counterbalance.net/ctns-vo/index-frame.html (accessed 20 January 2013). For my own review of scholarly efforts on the part of theistic scientists to find mutual ground between science and religion, see Nathan Dickey, “The Scientific Verdict on God (Part 4): The New Deism,” The Journeyman Heretic (blog) 22 December 2012, http://journeymanheretic.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-scientific-verdict-on-god-part-4.html (accessed 20 January 2013).

3. William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, dirs., What the Bleep Do We Know!? (Lord of the Wind Films, LLC, 2004), www.whatthebleep.com (accessed 19 January 2013). For a skeptical review of the film, see Michael Shermer, “Quantum Quackery,” Scientific American 292, no. 1 (January 2005): 34.

4. Drew Heriot, dir., The Secret: Extended Edition (TS Productions, LLC, 2006).

5. Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2006).

6. Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1993), pp. 192-193.

7. R.H. Dicke, The Theoretical Significance of Experimental Relativity (New York: Gordon & Breach, 1964); Robert Resnick, Introduction to Special Relativity (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1968); Milton A. Rothman, Discovering the Natural Laws: The Experimental Basis of Physics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1972), chs. 6-7; Clifford M. Will, Was Einstein Right? Putting General Relativity to the Test (New York: Basic Books, 1986).

8. Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe, p. 263.

9. Ibid., p. 131.

10. Ibid.

11. A humorous critique of The Secret was featured on one of the “Nut Job of the Week” segments of The Chaser’s War on Everything, a satirical comedy television show which airs in Australia. The segment is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usbNJMUZSwo (accessed 22 January 2013).

12. Byrne, The Secret, pp. 20-21.

13. Ibid., p. 160.

14. “Profile of John Hagelin,” On the Issues: Every Political Leader on Every Issue, http://www.issues2000.org/Profile_John_Hagelin.htm (accessed 19 January 2013); “2000 Official Presidential General Election Results: General Election Date 11/7/00,” Federal Election Commission, http://www.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm (accessed 19 January 2013).

15. Byrne, The Secret, p. 9.

16. Ibid., p. 12.

17. For a scathing critique of the science and politics of Maharishi and TM, see James Randi, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and Other Delusions (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1982), pp. 93-108.

18. Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1975), p. 25.

19. Deepak Chopra, Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine (New York: Bantam Books, 1989). Chopra dedicated this book to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

20. Deepak Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old (New York: Harmony Books, 1993).

21. Ibid., p. 11.

22. Capra, The Tao of Physics, pp. 154-155.

23. Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe, p. 138.

24. Victor J. Stenger, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), p. 185.

25. Ibid., pp. 184, 186.

26. Ibid., pp. 187-188.

27. Richard P. Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 7.

28. P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930), p. 80, emphasis mine.

29. Feynman, QED, p. 15.

30. Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1967), p. 129.

31. Milton A Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism: Applying Laws of Physics to Faster-Than-Light Travel, Psychic Phenomena, Telepathy, Time Travel, UFO’s, and Other Pseudoscientific Claims (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 13.

32. Ibid., p. 71.

33. Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 9.

34. D.M. Armstrong, What Is a Law of Nature? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 5.

35. Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006), p. 57.

36. Nina Byers, “E. Noether’s Discovery of the Deep Connection between Symmetries and Conservation Laws,” Israel Mathematical Conference Proceedings 12 (1999), http://www.physics.ucla.edu/~cwp/articles/noether.asg/noether.html (accessed 16 January 2013). This web page contains links to the original paper by Noether, including M.A. Tavel’s English translation.

37. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos, p. 187.

38. Rothman, A Physicist’s Guide to Skepticism, p. 137.

39. Einstein only ever postulated (not confirmed through proof, derivation or measurement) that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant; that is, it is invariant, remaining the same from all points of view and reference frames. Thus, while it is true that there is no actual known mechanism dictating that light cannot travel faster than Einstein’s constant c, his theory has proven to be so successful in making sense of observations that in 1983, physicists worldwide redefined the standard meter in terms of a clock, not a meterstick: “the time light takes to travel between two points in a vacuum.” The second, defined by the cesium fountain atomic clock at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, is the only unit with which the physics community now defines time (for more information, see http://www.nist.gov/pml/div688/grp50/primary-frequency-standards.cfm). Consequently, the speed of light is now a constant by definition. One cannot coherently talk about changing the speed of light, because one would then be forced to also change the definition of distance from the current invention. This is not to say, of course, that light in a medium does not slow down, which we know it does. We are talking about the ideal case of light traveling in a perfect vacuum, not a medium. And that equals c by definition.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Scientific Verdict on God (Part 4): The New Deism

The more we refine our understanding of God to make the concept plausible, the more it seems pointless~ Steven Weinberg [1]

In his bestselling 2006 book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes geneticist Jerry Coyne as saying that the real nature of the current conflict between religion and science goes far deeper than just the cultural battle between evolution and creationism:

It’s not just about evolution versus creationism. To scientists like Dawkins and Wilson [E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard biologist], the real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition. Creationism is just a symptom of what they see as the greater enemy: religion. While religion can exist without creationism, creationism cannot exist without religion [2].
If theists want to use reason to argue for their position that a god exists, whatever model of god that may be, they have every right to do so. If they argue on the basis of ancient superstitions, on beliefs based on the myths of a primitive tribe that lived in the desert thousands of years ago and thought very highly of themselves and regarded themselves as special, then there is no point in arguing with them. If, on the other hand, we are going to debate on mutually-agreed grounds of rational argumentation – that is, if the theist agrees along with the atheist that they are going to make clear what their assumptions are and what their reasoning is for making those assumptions, then we should levy no objection to taking the time to debate with them. We atheists want just that kind of debate.

Incidentally, there are many theologians who do just this. Physicist and atheist Victor Stenger refers to this class of theists as the “Premise Keepers” in his 2003 book Has Science Found God? [3] This is a group with whom he sympathizes despite his disagreement with their conclusions. The premise keepers are theologians who fully accept and embrace the findings of modern science. They reject the approaches of people like William Dembski and Michael Behe and the flat-earth creationists before them, who want to denigrate science. But the premise keepers are theologians, after all. They cannot very well argue that God does not exist, because then they would find themselves out of a job. Therefore, they have to start with the assumption (the premise) that God exists and then attempt to make that proposition consistent with everything we know, not just in science but in all areas of knowledge that weigh in on the god question. And they have actually made a fairly impressive effort in this task by developing a highly abstract idea of god.

Their abstraction of god has led many of those who follow and agree with their books and articles to write highly critical reviews of the “new atheist” literature that has hit the publishing world like a storm in the past decade. A common accusation they make against the new atheists is that the latter group has not recognized what eminent scientist-theologians like John Polkinghorne or others like him have said. This is simply not the case; atheist writers have considered and written a fair amount about the science-savvy theologians, and I can direct any fan of the premise keepers to the relevant books and articles. However, in many other cases the abstract god of the theologians is not the kind of god being discussed in recent atheist literature. The theologians’ god, who may have created the universe and then allowed it to run on its own, just as in the Enlightenment model of the deist god, is not as interesting as the much more falsifiable personal god of theism who throughout history interacts and interferes with his creation on a moment-to-moment basis. The premise keepers posit a different god, one that essentially amounts to a modernized version of the old deism. Whereas the deism of the Enlightenment was an offshoot from the revolutionary Newtonian picture of the world as a clockwork mechanism, the new deism is an offshoot from developments of quantum mechanics early in the twentieth century.

Most educated theologians today fully realize that the God they espouse does not answer the prayers of the faithful. Most do not believe Jesus resurrected from the dead or that he was born of a virgin. They are fully aware that these stories and concepts are fictional, quaint mythological stories that may have served some purpose at one time in the past, as all myths seem to have done. Mythology once provided people with a way of understanding their life and the world in which they found themselves that was appropriate for their level of intellectual development.

Thus, when today’s educated theologians take to task common definitions of God – employed by us outspoken “new atheists” for use in hypothetical argumentation – they are not disagreeing with our observation that the personal God most people believe in does not answer prayers. They are disagreeing with the model of a God that does things like respond to prayers, raise people from the dead, and impregnate virgins with his holy spirit. They realize that the model of this active personal God is a testable hypothesis and one moreover that has failed the test in both science and philosophy. And theologians are notoriously averse to testable hypotheses. Rarely do we ever hear them positively define their god to let us know what they actually believe their god is and what he/she/it actually does. These are the theologians whose sole objection to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is an insistence that the kind of deity Dawkins dismantles is not the god they believe in. But they rarely lay out what they actually do believe about god, only what they do not believe god is like.

Evolution Theology

There are several exceptions to this general rule, of course. For example, in the cultural conflict between Christianity and the science of biological evolution, large groups of moderate Christians – taking their cue from the Catholic Church in general – have come out in support of the theory of evolution. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons the majority of scientists are loathe to involve themselves in too great a conflict with these religious groups; they reason that they need their continued support in order to see evolution taught more often than it unfortunately is in most public schools.

The fact that many religious groups support evolution means that several scientifically-literate theologians must have some answer to the largest theological problem raised by evolution: the fact that the existence of humans is an accident of nature. As the late eminent paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, if we were to wind back the “tape” of evolution and start the process up again from the beginning without changing any of the laws of chemistry, biology or physics, we would not see any of the same set of species we do today. Humanity would not again evolve, since humans are the product of innumerable accidents, chance events that occurred in the process of evolution [4]. The evolutionist John Maynard Smith reiterated Gould’s point in a review of the latter’s work:

If one was able to replay the whole evolution of animals, starting at the bottom of the Cambrian (and, to satisfy Laplace, moving one of the individual animals two feet to its left), there is no guarantee – indeed, no likelihood – that the result would be the same. There might be no conquest of the land, no emergence of mammals, certainly no human beings [5].
This means that humanity is not special. Yet the Christian religion, along with most other religions, has always placed humanity at the center of the universe. Christianity thus has no viable way of accounting for evolution and reconciling it with Christian doctrine.

How do theologians cope with this? Some, like physicist and Episcopalian priest William Pollard, suggest that God occasionally pokes his finger in at various points to bring about the emergence of human beings [6]. But this model is not consistent with evolution, which is a naturalistic process which operates by a well-established naturalistic mechanism. Pollard’s model is a form of intelligent design.

Other believers come up with a different theology more consistent with evolution as a naturalistic process. One approach is to basically revert to the god that Einstein famously objected to, namely the god who throws dice. Kenneth Miller, an evolutionary biologist and devout Catholic, suggests that God created the universe with a number of initial possible pathways and then played dice, letting his universe go to let its pathways obtain naturally according to chance, without interfering in any way after the toss. “Evolution is not rigged,” he writes, “and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection” [7]. This view is shared by physicist and theologian Ian Barbour, who writes, “Natural laws and chance may equally be instruments of God’s intentions. There can be purpose without an exact predetermined plan” [8]. One possible pathway (and the one that the universe obviously took) resulted in the evolution of humanity, but another possible pathway may have led to some other advanced creature. It was just an accident of chance that the path happened to result in the human species.

In any case, Miller and others with similar views believe that God’s purpose was served, and would have been regardless of what path the universe naturally followed after his roll of the cosmic dice:

Given evolution’s ability to adapt, to innovate, to test, and to experiment, sooner or later it would have given the Creator exactly what He was looking for – a creature who, like us, could know Him and love Him, could perceive the heavens and dream of the stars, a creature who would eventually discover the extraordinary process of evolution that filled His earth with so much life [9].
In other words, whatever path the universe took, whether it resulted in the emergence of humanity or in some other species, God’s only “intention” was to allow the dice to roll as they will. Whatever might have happened, they say, God’s purpose in throwing the dice in the first place is accomplished. As Miller puts it, “If another group of animals had evolved to self-awareness, if another creature had shown itself worthy of a soul, can we really say for certain that God would have been less than pleased with His new Eve and Adam? I don’t think so” [10].

This is a workable model of God, and one that nobody can disprove or rule out. But it is also not testable or falsifiable, as is the failed model of the Judeo-Christian Islamic God who interacts with his creation on a daily basis and takes an active interest in the lives of humans. Moreover, it is not a god for which any evidence is forthcoming, and the “absence of evidence” argument, as discussed in Part 2, still applies to the dice-throwing deistic god of Barbour and Miller.

Emergent Theology

Another common notion entertained by the premise keepers is that god emerges from natural processes, similar to the way consciousness emerges from organic brain matter. The notion of emergence, which grew out of complexity theory, suggests that certain properties and principles not built into material systems can arise out of those material systems, which initially were composed only of particles bouncing off one another. In his book Mind and Emergence, theologian Philip Clayton identifies downward causation as the most important defining characteristic of emergence. Downward causation is “the process whereby some whole has an active non-additive causal influence on its parts” [11]. This is a process for which the only actual evidence in nature are trivial instances with no metaphysical import, contrary to the theologians’ claims. Clayton himself acknowledges this mundaneness when he points out that claimed instances of downward causation “are clearest when the ‘whole’ in question is something we standardly pick out as a separate object in the world, such as cells, organs, organisms, and objects built by humans” [12].

A common example invoked by writers on emergence is water. There is no property of wetness in the individual particles that form water, namely hydrogen and oxygen atoms. But when two hydrogen atoms join with one oxygen atom, they produce water molecules which collectively possess the property of wetness. And so, wetness is said to “emerge.”

Sure, wetness emerges. But this fact does not in any way imply either that emergence is therefore a supernatural process, or that something more than reductive physics is needed to explain emergent properties, as the premise keepers are trying to insinuate.

Interestingly enough, a number of Christian theologians have come to accept the fact that we can safely conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no such thing as a soul, a spiritual substance that exists in each person separate from their material selves. As Christian theologian Nancey Murphy admits, “It is undeniable that a serious theological problem awaits solution” [13]. She acknowledges that “biology, neuroscience, and cognitive science have provided accounts of the dependence on physical processes of specific faculties once attributed to the soul” and that “the neurosciences have completed the Darwinian revolution, bringing the entire human being under the purview of the natural sciences” [14]. She is a proponent of the position which has come to be known as nonreductive physicalism, which she describes as follows:

Applied to the specific area of studies of consciousness, it [nonreductive physicalism] denies the existence of a nonmaterial entity, the mind (or soul) but does not deny the existence of consciousness (a position in philosophy of mind called eliminative materialism) or the significance of conscious states or other mental (note the adjectival form) phenomena. In brief, this is the view that the human nervous system, operating in concert with the rest of the body in its environment, is the seat of consciousness (and also of human spiritual or religious capacities). Consciousness and religious awareness are emergent properties and they have top-down causal influence on the body [15].
In other words, nonreductive physicalism accepts reductive accounts of human beings as purely physical organisms, but in addition to rejecting the dualistic notion of a mind or soul separate from the physical constitution of conscious creatures, nonreductive physicalism also denies that reductive physics and biology possess any causal role in bringing about higher capacities such as consciousness.

Physiological psychologist Warren S. Brown of Fuller Theological Seminary suggests that what we call “soul” is an emergent property which arises from the capacity for personal relatedness among humans. Personal relatedness, says Brown, is made possible by a number of cognitive functions which he argues are either qualitatively or quantitatively unique to humans. These include language, a theory of other minds, episodic memory, future orientation and emotional modulation. While he rejects body-soul dualism and admits that the functions which allow for personal relatedness depend on lower abilities for their existence and operation, Brown argues that they cannot be reduced to those lower abilities. Something more is required to account for them. He further asserts, without providing any evidence, that human cognitive capabilities exert “downward causative influence” on those lower abilities [16].

So, while the premise keepers have seemingly come to terms with the results of modern neuroscience which demonstrate conclusively that thinking is a purely physical process, as are emotions, they proceed to argue that perhaps, as humanity and the rest of the universe evolves further, out of our materialistic brain chemistry will emerge a tendency toward a point of ultimate complexity. This point of ultimate complexity, which the theologians want to call “God,” is often referred to in the context of the Omega Point, an idea originally proposed in 1955 by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist [17].

Murphy, Brown and other proponents of top-down emergence and nonreductive physicalism still seem to be in denial of another fact, namely that physics implies reduction by definition. If one wants to philosophize it by suffixing an ism onto the term “physical” and talk about physicalism while rejecting reductive accounts which make sense of its constructs, why not deny altogether the primacy of the hard science they are trying to reconcile with theology in the first place and present the physical sciences as simply another branch of theology? As it turns out, some god-believing physicists do just this.

Christianity and Eternal Life as Physics

Physicist Frank Tipler of Tulane University, probably the most enthusiastic proponent of Teilhard’s “Omega Point” idea among scientists today, has been rightly described by biologist and popular atheist blogger PZ Myers as “one weird dude” [18]. Tipler promotes some of the most incredibly amusing and bizarre ideas one can hope to come across in his field. He has made a career out of interpreting modern physics in terms of both Christianity and the ultimate movement to the Omega Point, and in trying to persuade his colleagues and readers that theology is a branch of physics. Tipler was introduced in Part 2 of this series as the one who announced in 2007 that he had come up with a physics equation that he claimed proved the existence of God, stating that “as long as you're using . . . general relativity, and quantum mechanics, you are forced to conclude that God exists” [19].

Some years before this, Tipler authored a fascinating book titled The Physics of Immortality, in which he purports to “absorb theology into physics, to make Heaven as real as an electron [20].” Let me summarize his interpretation, which is well worth exploring for those not familiar with it.

Tipler begins the book by asserting that the planet Earth is doomed to be engulfed by the Sun’s outer atmosphere, into which the planet will then spiral, in about 7 billion years. If the human species is to survive into the far future, we must move off the planet and colonize space. In less than fifty years, Tipler is convinced that humanity will have succeeded in building interstellar robot probes which possess intelligence and which will leave Earth to explore the universe and colonize it with the DNA codes of humans and other life forms. These intelligent robots will evolve over time into ever more complex artificial intelligence systems. In about a billion-billion (or 1018) years from now, the universe will have reached maximum expansion and will begin to contract. By harnessing the chaos equations governing universal dynamics, the intelligent robots we created will control the rate and direction in which the universe collapses back down to a single point of infinitesimal size (the Omega Point).

Now, when a system gravitationally collapses, any clocks contained within it run slower and slower as the collapse progresses. This means that an infinite amount of time is available while the collapse of the universe takes place. During this infinite time, everything that can and has happened can be repeated over and over again. The advanced robotic life forms will thus be able to regenerate every single human that has ever existed and make them relive their life over and over again. Not only will every single human being who has ever lived repeat the life they had the first time around, but they will live every other possible life. In other words, everybody will do every possible thing they might have done in their lives. This, then, is the immortality which Tipler envisions: a coming infinity of time in which everything can and will happen, the mechanism for which he works out from advanced physics.

In 2007, Tipler published The Physics of Christianity, a book in which he presents pure reductive physics explanations for the resurrection of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his miracles. All of these events occurred naturally, says Tipler, and no postulate of supernaturalism or divine intervention is required to account for and explain them.

Tipler speculates that when Jesus resurrected from death, his entire body was converted into neutrinos, elementary particles which interact very weakly with normal macroscale matter and thus are invisible, allowing Jesus to walk through solid walls. By reversing the conversion process, Jesus can materialize out of nothing and thereby reappear before his disciples [21].

Jesus’ virgin birth could have occurred by the natural inducement of oocyte (egg cell) division in the female body of Mary. Tipler points out that the phenomenon of parthenogenesis has been known to occur in nature, resulting in about one in thirty human births. However, because females have two X chromosomes while males typically have the XY combination, natural virginal births should always result in a female child, since all the genes come from the mother in those rare cases. Tipler gets around this problem by noting that 1 in 20,000 males have two X chromosomes, their maleness coming from a key gene (the SRY gene). This SRY gene may have been inserted into one of Mary’s X chromosomes and inactivated by a standard RNA mechanism which turns off genes. The gene would then be activated in Jesus, who in this scheme results from the division of one of Mary’s oocytes prior to its becoming haploid, thus allowing Jesus to be born a male [22].

Jesus’ miracles are said by Tipler to have been achieved by the electroweak quantum tunneling mechanism, basically the same as that which allowed the resurrection of his invisible body and re-materialization before his disciples: the annihilation/conversion of protons and electrons into neutrinos and vice versa. When Jesus walked on water, the protons and electrons making up the layer of water under his feet were annihilated, creating neutrinos in their place. This means Jesus would have been kept from sinking by the upward recoil resulting from the rapid motion of these neutrinos as they move downward with high momentum [23].

Tipler even has a physics account of the coming “Great Tribulation” described in the Bible’s more prophetic passages. Tipler is convinced that we as a species are doomed to destroy ourselves within the next fifty years. Recall the intelligent robot probes we will send off into space, as discussed above in reference to Tipler’s previous book. In order to do this, humans will first need to develop a highly-efficient form of propulsion, which Tipler believes will be found when collective humanity discovers the means to control the matter annihilation process used by Jesus. That dematerialization mechanism will provide each of us with a tabletop weapon so powerfully destructive that it makes nuclear bombs look like spitballs by comparison. Our inability to control this weapon will mean our demise at our own hands [24]. Thus, the very process that will ultimately bring about the resurrection of each and every human being to eternal life in the Omega Point – the sending off of intelligent robots into the cosmos who will later resurrect us in the form of computer emulations – will also be the cause of our temporary destruction in less than fifty years.

Traditional Theology versus “Sokaled” Theology

In reading Tipler’s works, one is led to wonder if he is actually serious. Perhaps he is playing a great hoax on his colleagues and readers, in similar fashion to the famous Sokal hoax. In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal of New York University wrote an article for the peer-reviewed journal Social Text in which he proposed that the laws of physics are little more than mere social and linguistic conventions and that science must be subordinated to political strategies rather than to reality in order to be liberated [25]. In writing this article, which was accepted by the peer-review board of the journal, Sokal intentionally filled it with pseudoscience and nonsensical but obfuscated postmodern gibberish. His prank highlighted one of the many problems with postmodernist academics, namely the tendency of postmodernists to communicate using a façade of theoretical sophistication to the exclusion of internal logical consistency. As Sokal put it in a Lingua Franca article, in which he revealed his Social Text article as a satire, “Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors, and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this” [26].

This is a fitting description of Tipler’s writings. Although he is careful and rigorous in his use of well-established science and precise mathematics (and so is not postmodern in that particular sense), he has misused and abused the physics he knows in trying to treat theology as a branch of physics and in making up a practically fictional universe from the depths of his fertile imagination. It should be obvious that no Christian layperson talks or even thinks the way Tipler and other “theophysicists” do on a regular basis.

This is a problem for the evolution-theologians who want to massage their model into consistency with the basic tenets of Christianity. Many want to maintain that the model of a god who throws dice is consistent with what we find in the Bible. However, their model is not at all consistent with what most lay believers and worshippers think and believe. The theologians’ “Sokaled” god is not the one being prayed to by the average layperson in the pew. It is in fact unrecognizable to them, and most of those people in the pews would view the god of the theologians as a heresy. After all, the theologians’ model denies many of the essential traditional precepts of the Catholic Church, for example, one of which states that Jesus was a divine being.

So in one sense, the premise keepers have come to grips with reality, only to then retroactively define their god back into consistency with the findings of modern science. Because they have come to accept that the broader model of god can no longer be supported, they have scaled back and attempted to fit god into whatever nooks and crannies they possibly can. But they then use their model of god as a justification for religion itself, the exercise of which is completely independent of and separate from the idea of god they have conceived. The premise keepers want to argue that religion itself is good for society and individuals, whether or not there is a god behind it and regardless of whether their god is even identifiable by the worshippers.

Moreover, the “intention” of the evolution-theologians’ god is indistinguishable from a complete absence of intention. In other words, their god may as well not exist, because if this god does no more than roll the cosmic dice and allow whatever happens next to play out naturally, then there is no reason for supposing that he exists in the first place. Unless, that is, the chance-theologian resorts to the classical First Cause argument, which has been soundly refuted for over 400 years. And besides, there can be no benefit whatsoever to believing in the god who throws dice. He does not hear prayers, much less answer them, and he does not interact in any way with his chance creation. Again, he might as well not exist.

Conclusion: Rational Christians Are Effective Atheists

Because the professional reason-oriented theologians posit a god that may as well not exist, it follows that they may as well be atheists. That is, they are effective atheists. This renders their adherence to Christianity all the more perplexing. If they accept that god throws dice and allows chance processes to take over, they must accept that Jesus himself was just another accident of history, as are all the rest of us. Nancey Murphy expresses this concern when she writes, “A revised concept of the person has implications for thinking about the person of Christ. Recognition of the centrality of resurrection to Christian teaching, combined with recognition of the continuity of humans with the whole of nature, calls for reconsideration of the scope of God’s final transformative act” [27].

Then again, it is not even clear that the majority of today’s professional theologians, even the ostensibly Christian ones, actually believe in Jesus as the divine savior of humankind. Consider, for example, the case of John Shelby Spong. A retired bishop of the Episcopal Church, Spong is the author of many books promoting liberal and progressive Christianity and debunking fundamentalist doctrine. In his 2007 book Jesus for the Non-Religious, Spong gives strong, reasoned arguments as to why the virgin birth of Christ could not have happened, why the whole story of the Nativity of Christ could not have played out as depicted in the Bible, why students of history can safely conclude that the story of Christ’s resurrection is not historical and the story of his ascension is a myth. By the time Spong concludes the first part of his book, practically nothing of the Gospel narrative survives his critical examination. He summarizes his findings as follows:

The first stage of our faith journey, the clearing out of distortions in the way we view the Jesus story, is complete. The literalness of centuries of misinterpretation of the Jesus story has been broken open. The pieces lie before us in frightening array. Jesus was born in a perfectly normal way in Nazareth. His mother was not the icon of virgin purity. His earthly father, Joseph, was a literary creation. His family thought he was out of his mind. He probably did not have twelve male disciples. He had disciples who were both male and female. He did not command nature to obey him. He did not in any literal sense give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf or wholeness to the paralyzed and infirm. He did not raise the dead. There was no stylized Last Supper in which bread was identified with his broken body and wine with his poured-out shed blood designed to symbolize his final prediction of death. There was no betrayal and no romance connected with his death, no mocking crowd, no crown of thorns, no words from the cross, no thieves, no cry of thirst and no darkness at noon. There was no tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea, no earthquake, no angel who rolled back the stone. There was no resuscitated body that emerged from that tomb on the third day, no touching of the wounds of Jesus, no opening by him of the secrets of scripture. Finally, there was no ascension into a heaven that exists above the sky. . . . All of these narrative details were the creation of a community of people who individually and corporately had an experience that they believed was of God in the human life of one Jesus of Nazareth [28].
Spong is by far the most honest Christian I know, and probably one of the most honest Christian writers of our time. His many years of close study have convinced him that there is little to no historical truth to be found in the Gospels, and he has not shied away from presenting the results of his research, however devastating to the tenets of traditional Christianity. It is not often nowadays that we find a Christian author, even a liberal one, writing as Spong does when he says that the “resurrection language of the gospels is literal nonsense” [29].

I am in complete agreement. If one came across many passages in Spong’s books unattributed, he or she would be excused for thinking that an atheist wrote it. However, through all this, Spong the self-identified Christian somehow manages to retain a dimly-perceived concept of Jesus with which he has lived his whole life and which he believes has brought him a feeling of happiness and fulfillment. He is still somehow able to find in Jesus a name for something by which he accounts for the goodness he sees in life. At the end of Jesus for the Non-Religious he writes,

It is through the expanded consciousness of these transcendent experiences [life, love and being] that I look at Jesus of Nazareth and assert that in his life I see what the word “God” means. My view of God and even of the God I meet in Jesus is a subjective description of what I believe is an objective reality.

It matters not to me whether any of the details of the cross story are accurate historically. I have long been convinced that they are not, since as I have already suggested, the gospels appear to be liturgically crafted documents based not on eyewitness accounts but on ancient Hebrew sources. They do, however, present a memory of Jesus of Nazareth, a portrait that I still find to be astounding [30].

Spong’s Jesus is just a name, nothing more. His Jesus is a concept not based on anything of substance, but rather on subjective feelings and sentiments. And while the various scientist-theologians reviewed above are more oriented toward hard science fuzzy feelings of the Spong variety, they too champion a model of theological belief of which the sole justification is their subjective aversion to a fully materialistic account of life, the universe and everything. This materialistic, fully reductive account is all that is required of the data, and many of them are good enough scientists to be fully aware of this deep down. The non-interventionist god of the scientist-theologians can thus be safely ruled out on the basis of its status as an unnecessary and post-hoc ancillary hypothesis.

Paradoxically, the scientist-theologians’ attempts to reconcile their conception of god and religious belief with the findings of modern science represents a fundamental unwillingness to come to terms with the fully reductionist picture of the universe which the data presents to us. At least the religious anti-science fundamentalists live in their own self-contained albeit ridiculous universe of their own dogmatic making which, while completely divorced from the real world, operates consistently according to its own rules which are provably incompatible with reality. Trying to harmonize religion and science succeeds only in a confused and inconsistent worldview unrecognizable by either traditional religion or modern science.

NOTES

1. Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), p. 256.

2. Jerry Coyne, as quoted in Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 92.

3. Victor J. Stenger, Has Science Found God? The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), ch. 11. See also Stenger, Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), chs. 14-15.

4. Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Norton, 1989).

5. John Maynard Smith, “Taking a Chance on Evolution,” New York Review of Books 34 no. 9 (14 May 1992): 34-36.

6. William G. Pollard, Chance and Providence: God’s Actions in a World Governed by Scientific Law (London: Faber and Faber, 1958).

7. Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 238.

8. Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 216.

9. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, pp. 238-239.

10. Ibid., p. 274.

11. Philip Clayton, Mind and Emergence: From Quantum to Consciousness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 49.

12. Ibid.

13. Nancey Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Warren S. Brown, Nancey Murphy and H. Newton Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 24.

14. Ibid., p. 17, 24.

15. Nancey Murphy, “Nonreductive Physicalism: Philosophical Issues,” in Brown, Murphy and Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? pp. 130-131.

16. Warren S. Brown, “Cognitive Contributions to Soul,” in Brown, Murphy and Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? pp. 99-125.

17. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, English trans. Bernard Wall (London: Wm. Collins Sons; New York: Harper & Row, 1959). Originally published in French as Le Phénomène Humain (Paris: Editions du Seul, 1955).

18. PZ Myers, “Is This What We Can Expect from Comfort/Cameron?” Pharyngula 5 May 2007, http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2007/05/is_this_what_we_can_expect_fro.php (accessed 22 December 2012).

19. Quoted in Salman Hameed, “The Proof of God – Tipler and His Pseudoscience,” Irtiqa: A Science & Religion Blog 10 May 2007, http://sciencereligionnews.blogspot.com/2007/05/proof-of-god-tipler-and-his.html (accessed 22 December 2012).

20. Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. xv.

21. Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Christianity (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 198-212.

22. Ibid., pp. 166-175.

23. Ibid., p. 200.

24. Ibid., pp. 62-81.

25. Alan Sokal, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” Social Text 46/47 (Spring-Summer 1996): 217-252. Reprinted in the editors of Lingua Franca, eds., The Sokal Hoax: The Sham That Shook the Academy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), pp. 11-45.

26. Alan Sokal, “Revelation: A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies,” in the editors of Lingua Franca, eds., The Sokal Hoax, p. 52.

27. Murphy, “Human Nature: Historical, Scientific, and Religious Issues,” in Brown, Murphy and Malony, eds., Whatever Happened to the Soul? p. 23.

28. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious: Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), p. 128.

29. Ibid., p. 122, emphasis mine.

30. Ibid., pp. 285-286.