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March 13, 2006

Quantum mysticism, the new black

When I was much younger and in my very early days of understanding the conflicting assertions about the nature of the world made by religious and scientific authorities, I became curious about what Eastern philosophy had to say about the subject. The usual questions troubled my thoughts: How can everything happen for a reason if we have free will? or, How can one reconcile the claims about Creation from the Bible (Torah, Koran, Vedas, whatever) with factual and scientifically verified statements about the Universe, e.g., the Big Bang, evolution, heliocentrism, etc.? and so forth.

Eastern philosophy (and its brother Eastern mysticism), to my Western-primed brain, seemed like a possible third-way to resolve these conundrums. At first, my imagination was captured by books like The Tao of Physics, which offered the appearance of a resolution through the mysteries of quantum physics. But, as I delved more deeply into Physics itself, and indeed actually started taking physics courses in high school and college, I became increasingly disenchanted with the slipperiness of New Age thought (which is, for better or for worse, the Western heir of Eastern mysticism). The end result was a complete rejection of the entire religio-cultural framework of New Age-ism on the basis of it being irrational, subjective and rooted in the ubiquitous but visceral desire to confirm the special place of humans, and more importantly yourself, in the Universe - the same desire that lays at the foundation of much of organized religious thought. But possibly what provoked the strongest revulsion from it was the fact that New Age-ism claims a pseudo-scientific tradition, much like modern creationism (a.k.a. intelligent design), in which the entire apparatus of repeatable experiments, testable hypotheses, and the belief in an objective reality (which implies a willingness to change your mind when confronted with overwhelming evidence) is ignored in favor of the ridiculous contradictory argument that because science hasn't proved it to be false (and more importantly, but usually not admittedly, because it seems like it should be right), it must therefore be true.

Fast-forward many years to the release of the film version of Eastern mysticism-meets-Physics: "What the #$!%* Do We Know!?". Naturally, I avoided this film like the plague - it veritably reeked of everything I disliked about New Age-ism. But now, apparently, there's a sequel to it. Alas, I doubt that the many of the faithful who flock to see the film will be reading this thoughtful essay on it in the New York Times "Far Out, Man. But Is It Quantum Physics?" by National Desk correspondent Dennis Overbye. His conclusion about the movie and its apparent popularity among the New Agers, in his own words, runs like so

When it comes to physics, people seem to need to kid themselves. There is a presumption, Dr. Albert [a professor of philosophy and physics at Columbia] said, that if you look deeply enough you will find "some reaffirmation of your own centrality to the world, a reaffirmation of your ability to take control of your own destiny." We want to know that God loves us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution.

But one of the most valuable aspects of science, he said, is precisely the way it resists that temptation to find the answer we want. That is the test that quantum mysticism flunks, and on some level we all flunk.

That is, we are fundamentally irrational beings, and are intimately attached to both our own convictions and the affirmation of them. Indeed, we're so naturally attached to them that it takes years of mental training to be otherwise. That's what getting a degree in science is about - training your brain to intuitively believe in a reality that is external to your own perception of it, that is ordered (even if in an apparently confusing way) and predictable (if only probabilistically), and that is accessible to the human mind. Overbye again,

I'd like to believe that like Galileo, I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty, "without hope or fear," as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis put it. Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it's a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival.

Overbye is, in his colloquial way, concluding that irrationality has some positive utility for any decision-making being with incomplete information about the world it lives in. We need to believe (at some level) that we have the ability to decide our actions independently from the world we inhabit in order to not succumb to the fatalistic conclusion that everything happens for no reason. But understanding this aspect of ourselves at least gives us the hope of recognizing when that irrationality is serving us well, and when it is not. This, I think, is one of the main reasons why science education should be universally accessible - to help us make better decisions on the whole, rather than being slaves to our ignorance and the whim of external forces (be they physical or otherwise).

posted March 13, 2006 08:29 PM in Thinking Aloud | permalink



Posted by: Danny at April 27, 2006 08:26 AM

Have you read Quantum Questions by Ken Wilber? If not, I think you might enjoy it. It is a collection of essays by the founders of quanum theory on topics of mysticism and such. But in the introduction, he points out quite clearly that there is nothing mystical or spiritual about quantum physics (except inasmuch as there is something mystical or spiritual about everything). Not one of the authors in that book thought that quantum physics was in any way mystical or spiritual. And, what I think might be missing in that introduction, but was in one of Ken Wilber's recent interviews, was how much the New Age movement (i.e., What the Bleep) butchers both science and mysticism with their misguided attempt to unite the two. Unfortunately, many of Ken Wilber's fans are the very wide-eyed New Agers talked about, and they have turned him into a bit of a cult of personality. Despite that, I think he has a lot of interesting stuff to say and is well worth reading.

Posted by: Alessandro Gagliardi at June 18, 2006 05:20 PM

I haven't read anything by Ken Wilber, but I'll certainly consider it now - thanks for the tip!

Posted by: Aaron at June 23, 2006 07:53 PM