I spend a lot of time ranting here about the religious right and their absurd ideas about the universe, but make no mistake, I am just as hard on the new age left when they try to pull those sorts of stunts. It’s only that they have little to no power to affect the lives of others (or even themselves) that keeps them out of my writing. That being said, sometimes something so profoundly stupid is said, I have no choice but to respond.
Several days ago, a number of pseudoscientific frauds, including Deepak Chopra, wrote a letter to TED complaining that they’re being censored, something about freedom of ideas, upset that what they do isn’t considered real science, etc. The reason for this is that TEDx talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, two people who have done legitimate work early in their careers but somewhere along the way abjured science for endless “what if” games, we not posted on the main TEDx site, but rather on a site for talks that don’t really meet the criteria of advancing legitimate ideas for real discussion that TED tries to promote.
For the most part, Jerry Coyne has fun reveling in the fact that such a celebrated con artist as Chopra is upset by the militant atheist bloggers like himself who helped convince TED that they didn’t want to be involved with parapsychologists and people who spend their time searching for mythological items. I can’t blame him, that’s a pretty high honor. How many people must be trying to point out that Chopra and his ilk are full of shit on a daily basis? It would be like Timmy Dolan complaining about attractive, young, long-haired bloggers making life difficult for him.
But here’s the part where I lost it.
The reason becomes clear when you discover that non-local consciousness means the possibility that there is mind outside the human brain or even outside material reality, that a conscious mind is in some way intrinsic to the quantum universe, and that we all are quantum entangled.
Ok, stop right there. No. No, no, no. That’s not what that means. At all.
Which is why we’re going to discuss a little quantum physics. Don’t worry, I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.
“Quantum physics” does not mean “mind over matter.” That is the first thing that we need to understand before moving forward. You will hear a lot from new agers about how quantum physics suggests that good, happy, fuzzy feelings make the world an objectively better place by altering the fabric of existence with your mind. But let’s examine what they mean.
To start with, this is going to be difficult because while both sides of this debate use the terms of quantum physics, only one side actually employs the math of quantum physics, so I can’t show you where Chopra and Co. (which would be a great name for a rock band) got their math wrong. They have no math. And I struggle with math, so I wouldn’t be the best person to find their mistakes. But at least we can look at claims and see what they really mean. There will be a Tl;dr summary at the end of the big section, for those who don’t love physics.
Heisenberg and the Observer Effect
The first thing that you will notice about the claims of people like Chopra is that much of their nonsense stems from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which says that we can never know the exact position and velocity of an electron at the same time, and the Observer Effect, which says that the act of measuring something that exists in a quantum state (one that is undetermined) will actually make it deterministic. Here’s a good explanation of what quantum is examining:
In quantum mechanics we learn that the behavior of the very smallest objects (like electrons, for example) is very unlike the behavior of everyday things like baseballs. When we throw a baseball at a wall, we can predict where it will be during its flight, where it will hit the wall, how it will bounce, and what it will do afterward.
When we fire an electron at a plate with two closely spaced slits in it, and detect the electron on a screen behind these slits, the behavior of the electron is the same as that of a wave in that it can actually go though both holes at once. This may seem odd, but its true. If we repeat this experiment lots of times with lots of electrons, we see that some positions on the screen will have been hit by many electrons and some will have been hit by none. The observed “interference pattern” for these electrons is evidence of their dual wave-particle nature, and is well described by thinking of each electron as a superposition of two “states”, one that goes through one slit, one that goes through the other.
Chopra argues that because we can’t know where electrons are and where they’re going at the same time, and because the act of observation seems to make it so that one “state” is “chosen” over the other, then that means that we can choose the direction of electrons and, if we observe really, really hard, get enough electrons to go our way and therefore change the whole universe.
The problem with this is so manifold I hardly know where to begin. The first is that, as was pointed out in the quote, electrons don’t behave the same way as larger objects. Just because larger objects have electrons in them does not mean that making a bunch of electrons move in a certain way makes the object do that, and even if you could control the direction of large objects via their electrons, that doesn’t mean that the universe can be bent to your will.
The second problem is that there is no way to “choose” a direction for an electron to go. Ideas like The Secret try to push this idea that just expecting something to be true will make it true by “magnetically” pulling what you want to you via the concept of “like attracts like.” They even got Fred Alan Wolf, an actually physicist, to throw his support to this notion, but as is the case with most woo-ish nonsense, Wolf lends his pHD to those pushing the “quantum means like attracts like” crowd to make ridiculous and unsupported statements, then hides behind the training he isn’t using to come to those conclusions. If a medical doctor did the stuff Wolf does, they would be sued for malpractice.
Finally, even if it meant something to determine the direction of electrons, and even if we could specifically determine what direction they would go in, most of us have no way of doing so. This is where the woomeisters really try to pull a fast one. This is the informal logical fallacy known as Equivocation, which is using a word with two definitions to mean one thing when you actually mean the other. In this case, the word is “observer.”
The “Observer Effect” does not mean that when you look at an electron, it goes from being in multiple, quantum states to only being in one state. If that were the case, we wouldn’t know they were even in multiple, quantum states to begin with. What “observe” means, in this case, is to take scientific measurements of, not just to look at. The reason why electrons go from being in multiple states to just one is that the act of measuring forces that to happen.
Think of it like this: imagine you have a large bowl of water with a bullet vibe on the bottom. The surface of the water is calm, but you know that if that vibe is going, the water could be shaking like crazy down at the bottom, and you want to know whether the vibe is on or not. So you, like the good scientist you are, get some measuring tools to put into the water to see if it’s moving. However, by putting the measuring tools into the water, you’re disturbing the water, making sure that it’s moving. Whether the bullet vibe was on or not, the water is now in motion because of your attempt to measure. Before that, however, we couldn’t know whether it was in motion or not, and no amount of staring at it would have changed that.
Wave Function Collapse
Another thing that you’ll hear from Chopra is that “consciousness is a series of wave function collapses”. Basically, the argument seems to be that since there seems to be no physical “seat of the soul” or observable (using the scientific definition) evidence of a spirit or consciousness, that that clearly means they exist in a state of being that is superimposed on the material world and the act of looking around us makes the infinitely possible state of the universe collapse into a single one that we see via the above-mentioned observer effect. This is known as “quantum consciousness”, I believe, but it’s hard to tell for certain as people like Chopra excel at saying absolutely nothing at length.
Let’s do some math.
That equation above represents a wave function. I know it looks complicated, but it’s not that bad. The phi i at the end there represents all of the possible “alternative” states, which could be denoted as phi 1, phi 2, phi 3, etc. These each represent a different eigenstate, which basically is just the value around which other things change. For the math to work, an observable aspect of any given eigenstate is picked (either position or momentum, remember Heisenberg) and assigned an eiganvalue, ei, of the system.
So, what we have here is a bunch of possibilities and an equation to describe (not predict) them. We also have a hypothesis that if an electron is at a specific place, it will match at least one of the observations that we gave an eiganvalue to. So now we can test to see which one it is. The problem is that when we test it, we jostle and shake those electrons in the process, so like the slit experiment quoted above, we take something that behaves like a wave (going through both slits at once), and “collapsing” it so that it only behaves like a particle (goes through one slit in the metal or the other).
None of that has anything to do with consciousness. The “consciousness” bit was tacked on by a man named Roger Penrose who suggested that since the brain runs on electrical impulses, then it must exist in a probabilistic fashion like other electrons do. Therefore…somehow this means that consciousness exists in some superposition to our perceived position because of reasons. As a result, there is a whole cottage industry of people who push the “quantum consciousness” idea and extrapolate it to mean things it doesn’t.
We’ve gone into a lot of detail here, and there is so much more that we could go into, but the basic argument of Chopra and Co. is that because the brains are run on electricity, and because electrons behave as waves before they’re observed, then start acting like particles, that means that consciousness exists outside of the body and by thinking at things really hard, you change the way the electrons move, which means you can CONTROL THE UNIVERSE WITH YOUR MIND!
This belief rests mostly on misunderstanding what certain words mean and making logical leaps that aren’t supported by the evidence.
The reason why what Chopra and his gang does isn’t considered real science is because the only way it works is by assuming a very specific spiritual component to everything (i.e. they “know” there’s a soul, but there’s no physical evidence in the body, so clearly this quantum stuff explains where it is because where else could it be?). It makes no predictions that can be tested via experiment, it plays word games to sell books to people who really wish they could alter the universe with their thoughts (which, to be fair, is almost everybody) and think that there’s some secret that con artists like Chopra have because they’re calm and use big words.
I am remarkably happy that TED has decided that woomeisters shouldn’t be a part of the discussion that they’re trying to have. At least, they shouldn’t be taken seriously until such time as they can produce ideas that stand up to legitimate scrutiny. In much the same way that when theology tries to make scientific claims (age of the Earth, whether resurrection is possible, whether humanity as we know it could have descended from a single family, etc.) it should answer them scientifically, when new agers make scientific claims, they should also have to answer them scientifically. Word games and vague associations don’t count as evidence in a scientific context any more than Roberto Benigni’s 1998 Oscar acceptance speech is evidence that he wants to sleep with me (and you).
Literary criticism is very good at playing word games, because authors often play word games. I love doing it because I can tease out meaning from diction and syntax. However, scientists do not use diction and syntax to implant meaning into their work. They are concerned with observation and the implications of what they see. Chopra and Co. keep wanting to find hidden meaning that simply does not exist, and TED has no obligation to continue to allow them to embarrass themselves in front of audiences that know better.