Stenger: Quantum Gods

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Victor J. Stenger, Quantum Gods : Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness. Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 2009. 292 pages; with references.

There’s something about modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, which attracts magical thinking. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Someone once said that because quantum mechanics is so counter-intuitive, because no one really understands it, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using it to "explain" anything else we don’t understand. Consciousness is a prime example.

Even some scientists and science writers will sometimes indulge themselves with magical speculation. An example from Gau Am Naik, writing in the Wall Street Journal on quantum entanglement. "Some philosophers see quantum phenomena as a sign of far greater unknown forces at work and it bolsters their view that a spiritual dimension exists." So, it’s not surprising that those outside the science culture who may have a particular spiritual or theological barrow to push will make opportunist use of quantum strangeness.

Victor Stenger’s book Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness, aims to show how this use of quantum mechanics is wrong. He describes how "spiritually"-inclined scientists, "new-agers" and other "spiritual" merchants, and modern theologians use quantum mechanics. All these groups have the same aim – to provide some sense of scientific credibility to their beliefs and claims. They are using science opportunistically and Stenger provides an important service exposing this in his new book.

Quantum Flapdoodle

Stenger coins the terms quantum spirituality and quantum theology to describe the two opportunist uses of modern quantum physics. Michael Shermer in his foreword to this book uses the term quantum flapdoodle – originally used by Murray Gell-Mann to describe the misuse and abuse of quantum physics. Both Shermer and Stenger refer to the film "What the Bleep Do We Know?" – a successful documentary film which indulged in this flapdoodle.

The film included interviews with some "spiritually inclined" people. Like Fred Alan Wolf, who has written several popular books on quantum spirituality, John Haglin, a leader of the transcendental meditation movement and Amit Gowami, author of The Self-Aware Universe.

There is also the psychiatrist Jeffrey Satinover who wrote The Quantum Brain and anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff who collaborated with Roger Penrose in postulating a place for quantum mechanics in the brain. Hameroff goes as far as claiming quantum-like behaviour of microtubules in the nerve cells produce consciousness, and decisions. As Stenger sardonically comments – some people "suggest that in the case of the human male, microtubules in the cells of the penis dominate."

Unfortunately scientists like these provide an impression of modern physics which is just not accepted by most scientists working in the field. Their pronouncements are used to promote a pseudo-scientific basis to claims like "we can make our own reality", "we are part of an inseparable whole", and "quantum mechanics is behind miraculous phenomena."

It’s hardly surprising that some of those who promote mysticism as a commercial enterprise have fallen back on quantum mechanics to provide scientific "credibility" to their claims. For example, Maharishi Mahish Yogi (p 55) claims that transcendental meditation enables people to "tune into the cosmic consciousness" – a quantum-mechanical force pervading the universe.

Religious apologists will also sometimes resort to quantum mechanics in their attempts to claim scientific credibility. For example, naïve creationist Allan Epling in a recent article ("Does String Theory Confirm the Bible?") asserts that modern quantum and string theory is "supporting and giving insight into perhaps some of the mysteries of the Bible." He claims physicists don’t discuss this in public "for fear it would lend credence to the religious concepts of people of faith." He then goes on to use "multiverse" and "alternate worlds" ideas to justify a belief in heaven and hell! – "For those who don’t believe in hell, there is a very real possibility that future discoveries in science will confirm such a place can exist."

The Premise Keepers

Stenger discusses how this opportunist use of science can arise naturally out of honest attempts to modernise religion. Christian theologians and theistic scientists who accept the results of science are often guilty of this when they attempt to reconcile science with their traditional religious beliefs. Stenger labels these people the "Premise Keepers".

Theists often argue the laws of nature arise out of the rationality imposed on the universe by their god. So the theistic scientists see a god who does not violate its own laws of nature. As John Polkinghorne argues – this would have god acting against god. These sincere attempts to make their god’s activity constrained within the laws of nature restricts the acceptable theories of a god.

One natural conclusion of this approach is a deistic god. A god who creates the universe, imposes the laws of nature, gives everything a kick-start, and then retires.

This conflicts with the Christian concepts so theologians try to find a way for their god to intervene – without violating the laws of nature. So some argue the indeterminism of quantum mechanics provides a way for divine intervention.

This is illustrated by an article from the Biologos Foundation, which was set up by theistic scientist Francis Collins and is funded by The Templeton Foundation. Dealing with Evolution and divine intervention the article says in part:

It is thus perfectly possible that God might influence the creation in subtle ways that are unrecognizable to scientific observation. In this way, modern science opens the door to divine action without the need for law breaking miracles. Given the impossibility of absolute prediction or explanation, the laws of nature no longer preclude God’s action in the world. Our perception of the world opens once again to the possibility of divine interaction. Despite the uncertainty and unpredictability of the world, we are not forced to reject the earlier understanding of God’s creation as consistent and reliable. After all, the world still exhibits the same orderly behaviour that inspired so many faithful scientists of earlier centuries. Regardless of the irregularity of tiny, quantum mechanical, or complex, chaos theoretical, systems, the sun stills rises and sets, the tides ebb and flow, and objects fall to the ground. Nature is reliable enough to reflect God’s faithfulness yet flexible enough to permit God’s involvement.

Of course, all this is contrary to the whole spirit of science where ideas are built on, and tested by, evidence in the real world.

Victor Stenger is an international authority in this area of modern physics. He is adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii. In recent years he has written several books on modern physics and religion. Examples are God: The Failed Hypothesis, The Comprehensible Cosmos, Has Science Found God?, Timeless Reality, The Unconscious Quantum, Physics and Psychics, and Not by Design. The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason will be published in October.

In Quantum Gods Stenger alternates between descriptions of the opportunist use of science by the quantum spiritualists and quantum theologians on the one hand and outlines of the science on the other. He explains the science in an economical and clear way. This enables him to provide coverage of a breathtaking range of physical concepts in 260 pages. Ideas ranging from thermodynamics, though space time and matter, Chaos complexity and emergence, quantum philosophy and spookiness to theories of the origin of the universe. And these ideas are suitably referenced – which is always an advantage for popular science books.

In the last chapter Stenger outlines the problem:

Unfortunately, public understanding of science and the scientific method (as well as many other important disciplines such as history and philosophy) is so inadequate that many people are easy prey to the charlatans who promise simple solutions to difficult and often unsolvable problems.... While many scientists have spoken out against the misuse of science, the majority have chosen not to get involved in the fray. I plead with my scientist colleagues to take a more active role in what fundamentally continues the ancient battle between science and superstition. Their non-involvement may be the easy way out, but all it does is encourage irrational thinking that surely is not of benefit to society.

For these reasons I believe this book is fitting and timely. It will be a useful counter to some of the quantum mysticisms we are confronted with today.

-- Notes by KP

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