Quantum Mysticism

Quantum mysticism [mis-tuh-siz-uhm] is a term that has been used to refer to a set of metaphysical beliefs and associated practices that seek to relate consciousness, intelligence, or mystical world-views to the ideas of quantum mechanics and its interpretations. The term originally emerged from the founders of quantum theory in the early twentieth century as they debated the interpretations and implications of their nascent theories, which would later evolve into quantum mechanics, and later after WWII, with publications such as Schrödinger’s and Eugene Wigner’s 1961 paper.

The essential qualities of early quantum theory, and the ontological (related to the nature of being) questions that emerged from it, made a distinction between philosophical and scientific discussion difficult as quantum theory developed into a strong scientific theory. Quantum Mysticism is usually considered pseudoscience. Many of the leading Quantum physicists did however give mystical interpretations to their findings.

American theoretical physicist David Bohm was deeply influenced by Indian spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti, crediting him as a source for understanding the worldview he proposed in his interpretation of Quantum Mechanics that he put forth in ‘Wholeness and the Implicate Order’ (his first footnote credited Krishnamurti’s book ‘Freedom from the Known’- a treatise putting forth a distilled rendition of apophatic mysticism), and had a series of in depth dialogues with him that were published in the book ‘The Ending of Time.’ In ‘On Creativity,’ he wrote of Krishnamurti, ‘I got to know Krishnamurti in the early sixties. I became interested around that time in understanding the whole thing more deeply. I felt that he was suggesting that it is possible for a human being to have some kind of contact with this whole [that Bohm postulated in his work]. I don’t think he would want to use the word ‘God’ because of its limited associations.’ Harvard historian Juan Miguel Marin noted also the ”lucid mysticism,’ a synthesis between rationality and religion’ favored by Wolfgang Pauli, that Pauli ‘speculated that quantum theory could unify the psychological/scientific and philosophical/mystical approaches to consciousness.’

He further noted: ‘Among contemporary quantum field theories, the important gauge theories are indebted to the work of [Hermann] Weyl and Pauli. Yet many physicists today would be shocked if they learned how Weyl and Pauli understood the concept ‘field’ when they wrote their classic articles. They were both immersed in mysticism, searching for a way to unify mind and physics. Weyl published a lecture where he concluded by favoring the Christian-mathematical mysticism of Nicholas of Cusa. Moreover, Pauli’s published article on Kepler presents him as part of the Western mystical tradition … For those who do not favor the Copenhagen interpretation and prefer the alternative proposed by David Bohm, I would suggest reading Bohm’s many published dialogues on the topic of Eastern mysticism … Eddington and Schrödinger, like many today, joined forces to find a quantum gravity theory. Did their shared mysticism have a role to play in whatever insights they gained or mistakes they made? I do not know, but I think it’s important to find out.’

Marin noted that Albert Einstein, though he claimed belief in Spinoza’s God remained opposed to some of the novel mystical formulations of Pauli and his colleagues. Wolfgang Pauli was strongly against pseudoscience, severely criticizing unfalsifiable theories, coining, when referring to them, the phrase: ‘Not only is it not right, it’s not even wrong!’ Nevertheless, his findings in Quantum physics led, in his view, to mystical interpretations. According to Marin, the opposition to mystical interpretations of Quantum Mechanics that Einstein and others stemmed from their adherence to the philosophical school of realism (the belief that reality is ontologically independent of our conceptual schemes).

Yet in a 2007 ‘Nature’ paper, ‘An experimental test of non-local realism,’ Anton Zeilinger and his colleagues wrote that, ‘Most working scientists hold fast to the concept of ‘realism’—a viewpoint according to which an external reality exists independent of observation. But quantum physics has shattered some of our cornerstone beliefs. According to Bell’s theorem, any theory that is based on the joint assumption of realism and locality (meaning that local events cannot be affected by actions in space-like separated regions) is at variance with certain quantum predictions. Experiments with entangled pairs of particles have amply confirmed these quantum predictions, thus rendering local realistic theories untenable. Maintaining realism as a fundamental concept would therefore necessitate the introduction of ‘spooky’ actions that defy locality. Here we show by both theory and experiment that a broad and rather reasonable class of such non-local realistic theories is incompatible with experimentally observable quantum correlations. In the experiment, we measure previously untested correlations between two entangled photons, and show that these correlations violate an inequality proposed by Leggett for non-local realistic theories. Our result suggests that giving up the concept of locality is not sufficient to be consistent with quantum experiments, unless certain intuitive features of realism are abandoned.’

Professors Richard Conn Henry and Stephen R. Palmquist, commenting on that paper, stated: ‘Now we are beginning to see that quantum mechanics might actually exclude any possibility of mind-independent reality and already does exclude any reality that resembles our usual concept of such (Aspect: ‘it implies renouncing the kind of realism I would have liked’).’ They concluded their commentary by adding that in their view, because of these findings, ‘a theistic view of our existence becomes the only rational alternative to solipsism.’ Nonlocality is a concept in physics, previously known as action at a distance.

The history of quantum mysticism dates to the 1920s, with the inception of early quantum theory. Physicist Roger Penrose wrote in the ‘Shadows of the Mind’ that consciousness may be a quantum phenomenon. The idea was cuttingly criticized by Stephen Hawking; a summary of his criticisms was added to Penrose’s book. Mainstream theories assume that consciousness emerges from the brain, and focus particularly on complex computation at synapses that allow communication between neurons. Penrose, posited that quantum forces affected neural processing via microtubules in his Orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR) model that he developed in collaboration with the anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. .

A renewed interest in mystical interpretations and the psychological aspects of the new physics arose in the 1970s with physicists such as Fritjof Capra, whose popularly successful book ‘The Tao of Physics’ explored parallels between quantum physics and principles of Eastern mysticism. The 1980 book ‘Wholeness and the Implicate Order’ by David Bohm portrays reality as a unity which can be understood in terms of implicate and explicate orders. Steven Weinberg disagreed with Bohm, due to the many ‘erroneous claims’ about physics and quantum theory, in the so-called ‘Science wars’ (a series of intellectual exchanges, between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ scientists). Another well-known contribution was ‘Quantum Reality’ by physicist Nick Herbert (1985) which dealt mainly with possible interpretations of quantum theory. The 1979 book, ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’ by Gary Zukav (self-confessedly ‘not a physicist’) again included parallels between Eastern mysticism and modern physics. Michael Talbot’s ‘The Holographic Universe’ developed the ideas of David Bohm in relation to the recent Aspect experiment (designed to demonstrate the real world existence of certain theoretical consequences of the phenomenon of entanglement in quantum mechanics which could not possibly occur according to a classical picture of the world). In 1990, Robert Anton Wilson wrote a book called ‘Quantum Psychology’ which explains Timothy Leary’s Eight Circuit Model of Consciousness in terms of quantum mysticism.

New Age Guru Deepak Chopra’s 1988 book ‘Quantum Healing’ explained a theory of psychosomatic healing using quantum concepts and his ‘Ageless Body, Timeless Mind’ (1993) discusses specific claims of healing, reversal of the aging process and immortality, adopting a ‘quantum worldview’ and prescribing specific practices. In 1998 Deepak Chopra was awarded the parody Ig Nobel Prize, in the physics category, for ‘his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness.’ (Copra is perhaps the wealthiest and most famous of America’s alternative medicine practitioners). The 2004 film ‘What the Bleep Do We Know!?’ dealt with a range of New Age ideas in relation to physics. It was produced by the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, founded by a self-proclaimed American mystic J.Z. Knight, who said her teachings were based on a discourse with a 35,000-year-old disembodied entity named Ramtha. It made controversial use of some aspects of quantum mechanics—including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the observer effect—as well as biology and medicine. Numerous critics dismissed the film for its use of pseudoscience.

According to quantum mystics the observer and reality are not separate and mind and body are indivisibly one, and consciousness causes collapse (e.g. the act of observation affects reality directly). While these ideas are commonly accepted, science does not commonly attribute substantiality to mind and consciousness. David Chalmers, in ‘The Conscious Mind’ (1996), used the idea of the philosophical zombie to argue in the arena of philosophy that a mechanical view of evolution cannot account for the phenomenon of awareness, while American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett has attempted to refute this argument and to assert that the mind is an emergent phenomenon of our bodies. Quantum mystics commonly propose the idea that an underlying consciousness or intelligence connects everyone, based on the fact that quantum fields can be interpreted as extending infinitely in space. Swiss psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung referred to this inherent connection between all life as ‘the collective unconscious.’

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