What Quantum Theory is Not

[I was going to include this as part of my previous post, but then I noticed how long it was growing so I decided to spin it off into its own separate entry. You may think of this, then, as a companion to the previous post; whereas that one dealt with a certain article in particular, this one shall centre on more general abuses of quantum theory.]

About five years ago, I took a course called “Western Esotericism.” This course centred around the academic study of the esoteric tradition in western thought; it began with the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus*, and then worked through to their rediscovery in the fifteenth century, the Renaissance “mage” tradition, the esoteric philosophies behind alchemy and astrology,the mystical sects of Kabbalistic Judaism, the secret societies of the Masons and the Rosicrucians**, Max Weber’s theories of the ‘disenchantment of the modern world’ following the enlightenment, eventually giving rise (by way of nineteenth-century romanticism) to Spiritism, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Mme. Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society.

As you probably noticed, most of the subjects that we covered have been heavily sensationalized by the popular culture, to the point that it is difficult for Esoteric History to be taken seriously as a legitimate field of academic inquiry.***  The professor ably defended himself from such criticisms: “We’re not studying this because we believe it,” he said. “We’re studying it because, as historians, we want to obtain a complete picture of the past, and we can’t do that without analyzing the things that they believed, even if they do sound kind of silly today.” Not doing so would surely be the worst sort of ‘presentism.’

One thing that I remember quite vividly is a cartoon that he showed us on the very first day of classes; it depicted the “three intellectual pillars of western history.” The two outermost pillars were labelled “Greek Rationalism/Science” and “(Judeo-)Christian Theology”, respectively. The third pillar, in between these two, was labelled “Hermeticism/Magic.”

The reason that I am bringing this up now is because it seems to me that alot of people (including the author of the article that I so pilloried in my previous post) seem to believe that quantum mechanics offers a viable candidate to be this ‘third pillar.’ They believe, in essence, that quantum mechanics is magic.
My intention is to clarify (as a student of Quantum Physics****) that this is not the case.

The problem, in so far as I can see, seems to arrise from notions of consciousness. According to purveyors of Quantum-Theory-as-Mysticism (henceforth to be referred to as QTM), quantum theory implies that reality is to some extent contingent upon Human observations; they then extrapolate this to mean that reality is contingent upon Human consciousness (an ill-defined quantity that they equate with the soul), and therefore that reality is contingent upon Human will. Thus, according to the QTM adherent, it should be possible to effect changes to reality itself through force of will alone–magic, in the literal sense.

What are the problems with this line of reasoning?

Well…  it is true that, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Theory, observation is a necessary component of reality. That is to say that a particle will exist as a combination of every possible state that it can be in, until such a time as someone looks at it, at which point, it instantaneously collapses down to only a single state. However, a few things need to be pointed out; first of all, this observation-induced “collapse of the wave function” is a feature only of the Copenhagen interpretation; while it is the dominant interpretation of quantum theory, there are other, equally-consistent interpretations, such as the Bohm interpretation, or the Many-Worlds model), which predict the same physics. These interpretations are not scientific hypotheses, but philosophical frameworks; as such, they are fundamentally unfalsifiable; to therefore simply assume that one is the correct one and then run around claiming that science proves that you are right is intellectually indefensible.

Moreover, even most adherents of the Copenhagen interpretation would not go so far as to say that consciousness was necessary to collapse the wavefunction; the more conservative view would be that any interaction whatsoever between a quantum system and the macroscopic world would constitute an ‘observation.’ As one of professors once put it: “that cat was dead the second that the gamma ray hit the detector.” Is that true? How the hell should I know? The whole point is that it is unfalsifiable one way or the other.

But for the sake of argument, let us assume (without, I need to stress again, any good a priori reason for doing so), that not only is the Copenhagen Interpretation correct, but that the consciousness-dependent view of observation is the correct one.

So what?

All that this implies, as I have said above, is that quantum mechanical systems exist in all of their possible states until such time as we look at them, at which point they collapse down to just one. But which one do they collapse down to? Here, QTM-proponents make the mistake of conflating Consciousness (which we will define as the state of being aware of something) with Will (which we will define as the state of exerting intentional control over something). All that the (strong) Copenhagen interpretation claims is that reality is dependent upon Consciousness; nowhere does it claim that reality is contingent upon Will. Thus, wavefunctions may collapse when you observe them– but there is no reason to assume that they do so in anything other than a purely random way.

But let us assume, again for the sake of argument, that intention does play some role in the way that the wavefunction collapses; that an electron will go through the left slit, rather than the right slit, if you just wish hard enough. Well, here’s the thing: quantum mechanics governs the behaviour of physical phenomena at a scale smaller than that of an atom; anything much above that, and the randomness of quantum mechanics tends to cancel-out, reducing to a largely deterministic, “Newtonian” model. Now, it is true that macroscopic things are made out of pieces that are governed by quantum mechanics, and that if you influence enough of them, you will be able, hypothetically, to get them to behave in a non-deterministic fashion. But it will take you a while, because there are approximately 50 Septillion atoms of carbon in a single one-kilogram block of wood, so good luck manipulating them individually. Making a single electron move in a particular direction is one thing; making a block of wood burst into flames with your mind is quite another, as there is no basis in quantum physics for assuming that the universe includes any sort of mechanism for interpreting generalized desires into a specific series of quantum-mechanical actions. I suppose such a mechanism could exist, but there’s no evidence for it, and no reason to assume that it should.

Thus, we see that interpreting quantum physics as magic suffers from no fewer than three gaping holes: (1) it conflates a philosophy of science (the Copenhagen Interpretation), with a scientific fact; (2) it conflates consciousness with intentionality; and (3), it includes no mechanism by which macroscopic intentionality can be interpreted into a nigh-infinite number of quantum mechanical steps.

It is, in short, bogus, and should be dismissed as such.


*Which were originally thought to predate the Pharaohs of Egypt, but which we now know probablyoriginated in first-century Alexandria

**Who never really existed in meaningful sense, but enough people believed that they did that eventually some people started claiming that they were Rosicrucians

***The professor himself had once been labelled (by the premier of Manitoba, no less) as being “Canada’s Dan Brown;” as he was an accomplished historian and Egyptologist who could read several ancient near-eastern languages, he resented this appelation bitterly.

****By which, incidentally, I mean real quantum physics, rather than shit from Deepak Chopra books.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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5 Responses to What Quantum Theory is Not

  1. Lindsay says:

    This is a really wonderful post! I appreciated your short history of esoteric thought, and I also liked your explanations of 1) why the “observation” that makes Schrodinger’s cat either dead or alive doesn’t have to come from a conscious being and 2) why quantum mechanics doesn’t translate to the scale of everyday objects.

    (That’s always been my biggest gripe with this stuff, too — subatomic particles behave differently than everyday objects, because the amounts of energy and matter involved are so vastly greater. Like the difference between everyday objects and astronomical ones … it’d be just as bizarre to expect a black hole to form in your kitchen as it is to think you can will things into being because of “quantum mechanics”!)

    On another subject, that class in Western Esotericism sounds like it must’ve been fun! I’ve had some of that, in a mixed English/German class on the Faust myth. One of the professors thought it was important to bring Hermes Trismegistus and the alchemists into it for background on what kind of knowledge Faust was looking for.

    Also, I think you’ve given me a go-to reference that I will link whenever I write a post dealing with misuses of quantum mechanics. Well done!

    • Also, if you’re interested in Esoteric History, the textbook for the course was “Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge” by Kocku von Stuckrad. It’s not perfect–it’s a bit of a dry read, and it never finds a satisfactory definition of what “esotericism’ actually is, but it’s a better resource than you’re likely to find available generally.

  2. “Also, I think you’ve given me a go-to reference that I will link whenever I write a post dealing with misuses of quantum mechanics. Well done!”

    That was my intention, actually. Virtually all quantum mysticism suffers from these three problems

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