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


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.


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.

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