Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness
Victor J. Stenger
New Scientist April 22, 2009 review by Amanda Gefter.
QUANTUM mechanics is remarkably weird: even though it is well understood mathematically and can produce accurate, ultra-precise predictions, nobody really knows what it means. This leaves lots of room for people in search of the spiritual – and who are not burdened by any knowledge of mathematics – to impose on it whatever quasi-religious beliefs or interpretations they like.
In this much-needed book, physicist Victor Stenger isolates and then debunks the claims of two kinds of “quantum belief”. One he calls “quantum theology” because it offers quantum physics as a way for God to act in the world without violating natural laws. The second is “quantum spirituality”, which is rooted in the even vaguer notion that quantum physics connects the human mind to the universe, allowing us to create our own reality.
Like most scientists, Stenger believes most religious claims can be dealt with scientifically, so beliefs such as creationism or astrology aren’t immune to science, they are merely wrong. Take the tale of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian yogi (and physics graduate) who taught transcendental meditation and won a global following after the Beatles joined his Academy of Meditation in India. Maharishi claimed that transcendental meditation gave practitioners access to the “quantum field of cosmic consciousness”. This, he said, was identical to SU(5), the model physicists were then investigating in their search for a grand unified theory. Sadly for cosmic As for the notion of creating our own reality, this relies on brains in some sense operating quantum mechanically – and there is no evidence for this. As Stenger says, the scales of distance involved in brain processing are more than a thousand times too large for quantum effects to
necessarily come into play. Likewise, physicist Max Tegmark has shown that the timescales of events in the brain are 10 or more orders of magnitude longer than the timescales of “decoherence”, the process by which quantum effects “leak” out of the quantum system.
The notion of creating our own reality relies on brains in some sense operating quantum mechanically
Meanwhile, those looking for generalised spiritual meaning tend to seek holism in quantum mechanics. Stenger cites the famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox. This 1935 thought experiment outlined a known conundrum in quantum mechanics and concluded that we must accept one of two explanations for it: either that quantum mechanics is a complete theory -despite its probabilistic dice-throwing; or that beneath it lies some deterministic reality, but one which is “non-local”, that is, one where signals can travel faster than light speed, thereby violating Einstein’s special theory of relativity.
Most physicists chose the first option, except David Bohm, who famously came to believe in a non-local universe. Stenger sees little of mystical import in these experiments. They are widely discussed in the literature of quantum spiritualism, but real physicists “are underwhelmed…Quantum mechanics… passed yet another empirical test. Ho hum.”
Even though he skips rather dizzyingly between traditional religious beliefs, quantum spirituality and quantum physics itself, Stenger is a pleasure to read. And, pleasingly, the title Quantum Gods: Creation, chaos and the search for cosmic consciousness sounds just crackpot enough to attract those readers who will benefit most.
The recent popular documentary films What the Bleep Do We Know? and The Secret have promoted the claim that we can make our own reality just be thinking of it. For over thirty years now, New Age gurus have alleged that quantum mechanics has verified ancient teachings from the East that the human mind is part of a cosmic consciousness that pervades the universe.
Quantum mechanics is weird. But that does not mean everything that is weird is the result of quantum mechanics. This and my earlier book The Unconscious Quantum (Prometheus, 1995) are the only books in which a physicist directly criticizes the claims of quantum mysticism. The current book is also the only analysis by a physicist of the claims of quantum theology. A detailed answer is provided to the common question; “Is anything out there?” The answer is yes, but it is matter and nothing more. No evidence can be found for any immaterial or supernatural element in the universe.
- The omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent Judeo-Christian-Islamic God who intervenes regularly in the universe and in the lives of humans can be proved not to exist beyond a reasonable doubt. Such a God is not only logically impossible, he is falsified by the data.
- The enlightenment deist god, who created a perfectly predetermined universe, can almost but not quite be ruled out. Both the Bohmian and many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics imply a deterministic universe. However, the fact that Bohm’s model violates special relativity makes it unlikely to be correct. In the many worlds interpretation, all possibilities exist and so are predetermined. The apparent randomness and free will we see in a single world is an artifact. Theology has yet to come to grips with that possibility. And science has no reason to introduce into its explanatory systems an enlightenment deist god.
- Modern physics, including the uncertainty of conventional interpretations of quantum mechanics and deterministic chaos theory, do not provide a viable way for the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, or any modeled after him, to intervene regularly in the universe without noticeable breaking the laws of physics. But he could have surreptitiously intervened to prevent many diseases and catastrophes, so that fact that he does not also counts against his existence.
- A new deist god consistent with statistical quantum mechanics is still possible. Almost as many Americans have a deist view of divinity as have the traditional Judeo-Christian view. The new deist god played dice with the universe and so included in its structure a high element of chance. It then left the universe alone to carry on by natural processes. Humanity has what masquerades as free will, but is really just random—not a divine creation and so unlikely to have any divine purpose. If the universe began in total chaos, then the universe has retained no memory of any of purpose of the new deist god.
- The claim that quantum mechanics shows that we can make our own reality in our minds and those minds are connected holistically to a grand unified cosmic consciousness is based on either misunderstandings or deliberate misrepresentations of what quantum mechanics really says. No empirical evidence support the notion that mind is anything other than the product of purely material forces.
- The physics of elementary particles is not used to derive any of the principles that are observed for systems with large numbers of particles outside the realm of physics. Chemists, biologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, economists, and historians develop their own principles to describe their own subject matter without paying attention to particle physics. These principles are said to “emerge” from matter and “explanatory arrows” tend to go from bottom to top. The stronger claim is that emergent principles have explanatory power going from top to bottom, thus opening up a place for God to act in the universe. No evidence for top-down causality exists and computer simulations support totally reductive, purely material emergence.
- The laws of physics were not handed down from above but are human inventions. They take the form they do in order to guarantee that they describe observations invariant to any particular point of view. Some laws spontaneously break that symmetry, but they do so by accident.
- The model in which the universe is made of matter and nothing else and had a spontaneous, uncaused, natural origin from a state of chaos equivalent to “nothing” agrees with all the data. As a state of the universe, “something” is more natural than “nothing.”
So we appear to have good evidence for a universe that came about spontaneously, without cause, from nothing. The laws of physics also came from nothing. The structure of the universe emerged from nothing. Indeed, we can view that structure, including Earth and humanity, as forms of frozen nothing.