Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Can physics save your soul?

Dennis Overbye writes an excellent piece in the March 14 New York Times science section.

It is as clear a debunking as I have read of the feel good new age movement, dating from the 1960's, to blend modern quantum physics and consciousness. The argument seems to be that since there are deep paradoxes we can't grasp about physics and consciousness, they must share a deep unity. So maybe reality is just a mental construct we can manipulate, etc. etc.

The popular underground movies "What the #$!%* Do We Know" and its successor "What the Bleep, Down the Rabbit Hole" raise a question for Overbye "Do we really have to indulge in bad physics to feel good?" These movies, along with new age books liek "The Tao of Physics" and "The Dancing Wu Li Master" attempt to connect quantum physic to Eastern mysticism... the movie and the books promote "the idea that, at some level, our minds are in control of reality.." The minor factual problem is that "the waves that symbolize quantum possibilities are so fragile they collapse with the slightest encounter with their environment. Conscious observers are not needed." This is the unanimous opinion of working physicists today. One of them, Dr. David Albert, a professor of philosophy and physics at Columbia, points out that Eugene Wigner, the Nobel laureate who ventured the suggestion that consciousness might be a key to understanding how the "fog of quantum possibilities prescribed by mathematical theory can condense into one concrete actuality.... framed the process in strict mathematical and probabilistic terms..The desires and intentions of the observer had nothing to do with it."

"In other words, reality is out of our control..It's a casino universe...

An extended quote from Overbye :

"Not that there is anything wrong with that. There's a great story to be told about atoms and the void: how atoms evolved out of fire and bent space and grew into Homer, Chartres cathedral and "Blonde on Blonde." How those same atoms came to learn that the earth, sun, life, intelligence and the whole universe will eventually die.

I can hardly blame the quantum mystics for avoiding this story, and sticking to the 1960's.

When it comes to physics, people seem to need to kid themselves. There is a presumption, Dr. Albert 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.

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."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:29 PM

    What a wonderful synopsis of the manipulations and twists and turns our populace goes through to justify and rationalize preconceived ideas. I am now in the midst of Brown's "Angels and Deamons" and fine the fiction far more fascinating than the fittings of square pegs in round holes voiced by many of our scientists trying to reconcile their (ahem) beliefs with their (ahem) beliefs. Thanks to you Dr. Bownds for a most refreshing piece....