Last time out, we did a nerdy breakdown of New Ageism, and pulled apart the claim that you create your own reality.
It’s a popular profitable refrain…
But where did it come from?
And why do so many people believe it?
It’s all about quantum mechanics.
If you’ve ever seen any of the New Age takes on quantum physics, you probably found them fascinating…
I certainly did!
An unmanifest realm of pure energy and potential?
That responds to our thoughts and desires and *poofs* our dreams into existence?
That’s backed by the hardest of hard sciences?
And that’s where we live every day??
Seriously, how fucking cool is that!
But is it legit?
Is there really a link between consciousness and quantum physics?
Will the quantum wavefunction deliver on the health, and the wealth, and the love we’ve been longing for?
Or is that all just wishful thinking?
I may have let a spoiler slip with the headline… but it’s still fun to dig into the details!
That unlikely union—between the flakiest of faiths, and the hardest of hard sciences—is a fascinating mix of physics and philosophy…
And university politics (of all things).
So set aside your Secret affirmations and your stack of scratch-off lottery tickets, and…
Let’s get nerdy about the New Physics.
Quantum physics is one of the most interesting and mysterious discoveries of the 20th Century. (The New Agers like to call it “new,” but it’s actually been around since the 1920’s.)
It calls into question our most basic assumptions about space and time and reality.
And even after all these years, we’re still not quite sure what to make of it.
But when we get into subjects like consciousness and spirituality, it’s important to separate the weird phenomena we see in our experiments…
And the various ways we try to explain them.
The double-slit experiment is a perfect example…
If you’ve never heard of it, the double-slit is a seemingly innocuous experiment that demonstrates how unusual our universe really is…
In it, physicists shine light onto a screen through a barrier with narrow slits cut into it.
Imagine shooting a BB gun at a target—but between you and the target is a barrier with small holes cut in it.
Many of the BB’s bounce off the barrier, but the ones that go through the holes strike the target that sits beyond.
After shooting lots and lots of BB’s, the target is riddled with tiny holes.
And the patterns of those holes look roughly like the ones cut into the barrier.
Nothing too unusual…
The BB’s that hit the target had to pass through the barrier…
So it makes sense that the holes in the target would look similar in the end.
But this only happens with BB’s.
When we use photons (or any other tiny particles), the results are something different…
When we fire photons through a similar barrier, it starts out like we’d expect…
Many of the photons strike the barrier and stop…
And the rest pass through the slits and hit the screen that sits beyond.
Just like the BB’s, each photon leaves a dot.
But after shooting lots and lots of photons, the pattern on the screen doesn’t resemble the two slits cut in the barrier…
Instead, they form a series of narrow lines that spread out like a barcode.
These lines are called interference fringes.
At first, this might not seem so unusual.
Except that when the barrier only has one slit cut in it, the photons that hit the screen make the pattern we’d expect…
If the slit is cut in a straight line, then the pattern looks like a line.
But when the barrier has two slits—we don’t get two lines—we get interference fringes!
Now, if your head didn’t just explode, then you need to think more about it…
Just like the BB’s, the photons pass through the barrier one at a time.
So the ones that make it through must pass through either one slit or the other…
But the second slit—the one the photon doesn’t pass through—changes where the photon ends up!
That’s like shooting BB’s through a hole, and having them suddenly miss the bullseye because someone opened a second hole somewhere else!
Even more strange: if we set up detectors to determine which slit a photon passes through, the interference fringes disappear!
Each photon is detected at either one slit or the other, and we get the classical BB-like lines that we’d expect.
But if we don’t know which slit the photon passes through, it’s as if it passed through both at the same time—and the fringes return.
Needless to say, there’s been quite a bit of philosophical debate about how this happens and what it all means.
And you might be wondering what all this has to do with consciousness and spirituality…
And with winning the lottery jackpot of your dreams?
And I’m glad you asked… Because the answer is:
Not one god damned thing.
The Politics of Philosophy
Before we can tie the New Physics into the New Age, we need to take a brief detour into university politics…
Back in the 1920’s, when all the quantum weirdness was first coming to light, physicists were sharply divided about what to make of the whole thing.
Some physicists, like Erwin Schrödinger and Albert Einstein, held the opinion that early quantum theory must still be incomplete.
True, the phenomena were very strange…
But surely someday we would understand things better!
And when that day came, physicists would create a more elegant, less paradoxical theory.
But other physicists, like Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, held the opinion that (their) theory of quantum physics was complete…
And required no further scrutiny.
Bohr and his compatriots headed the era’s most prestigious school of theoretical physics.
And any competing theories or alternate interpretations were seen as a threat to their legacy (and to their enrollment).
And so they banded together in disseminating what became known as the Copenhagen, or orthodox, interpretation of quantum mechanics.
The official Copenhagen position was that quantum systems existed in a wavelike “superposition” of many different states—until they are measured or observed…
At which point the wavefunction “collapses” into the single state that is actually measured.
In other words, it was the wavefunction that passes through the slits in the barrier.
It was the interaction with the slits that caused the interference fringes.
And it was the screen that did the observation.
So what is a wavefunction really?
Why does it collapse at the screen but not at the barrier?
What counts as an observation?
And how does it collapse?
The orthodox answer was simple:
Shut up and calculate!
And stop asking questions!
Of course, there were other ways of looking at it…
Schröedinger himself, who had created the essential mathematics, hated the idea of wavefunction collapse.
But the Copenhagen physicists did their best to stifle any dissenting ideas.
And since the brightest young physicists were all getting an education in the orthodox position, the Copenhagen interpretation became the dominant interpretation of quantum theory for many, many years.
Which brings us finally to the New Age…
Clicks + Fringes = Ferraris
Young physicists weren’t the only ones who got an education in the orthodox philosophy.
The public got it too.
Tales of mysterious wavefunctions and the power of observation spread like wildfire.
And just like a childhood game of telephone, the story grew more fantastic as it spread…
Surely wavefunctions are real? Why would physicists talk about them if they weren’t…?
Surely consciousness is our ultimate means of observation? Because how else would we observe things…?
If the wavefunction contains every possible outcome… and if consciousness collapses the wavefunction… then all we need to do is use our consciousness to get the outcome we want!
ZOMG! Physics says that consciousness creates reality!! We just need to harness the Secret, and we can all get Ferraris and win the lottery!!!
But there are two sides to the quantum mystery: what we observe, and how we attempt to explain it.
And it’s important to distinguish between the two.
Interference fringes are an observable part of the world.
“Wavefunctions” are a creative fiction invented by humans to explain their appearance.
What we observe is damned unusual.
The appearance of interference fringes is devastating to our classical understanding of space and time and locality.
But the New Physics does not base its claims on the observation of quantum interference…
It merely accepts the Copenhagen interpretation, and builds upon that.
In other words, the New Physics is an interpretation of an interpretation.
Worse, it’s a poor interpretation of a poor interpretation.
New Age authors string together a good yarn about the power of belief and its link to the quantum mysteries…
But it’s a far cry from the phenomena that actually started the discussion…
Which is pretty easy to see if we examine the New Physics one piece at a time…
First, we have the interference phenomenon itself:
- When light shines on a detector, the instrument registers discrete clicks. (This leads us away from the classical wave model of light to the concept of photons.)
- When photons are fired at a screen with slits cut in it, interference fringes are created. (This is very strange and instigates a century of debate.)
Then we add Copenhagen:
- Our theory of quantum physics does not explain this, but
- Our theory is correct and complete, and cannot be improved upon…
- Therefore, photons must exist in a wave-like superposition of many states…
- Until they reach a detector, at which point the wavefunction collapses into a single measured value.
Then finally, the New Physics:
- Wavefunctions exist in a frequency realm outside both time and space.
- This realm is where consciousness lives.
- When consciousness intends a particular reality, the frequency realm responds by manifesting the physical universe.
- Therefore, if you really want a Ferrari, you will get a Ferrari.
Notice that the actual phenomenon never enters into the New Physics.
The New Physics doesn’t attempt to explain the interference fringes themselves.
It’s just a re-interpretation of the orthodox position.
If we skip over all of the Copenhagen business about wavefunction collapse, and jump straight to the New Age conclusion, we are left with this:
- When light shines on a detector, the instrument registers discrete clicks.
- When photons are fired at a screen with slits cut in it, interference fringes are created.
- Therefore, if you really want a Ferrari, you will get a Ferrari.
It’s a bit of a stretch without Copenhagen in the middle…
But there it is: the New Physics in a nutshell.
Salvaging the Sentiment?
It’s a little harder to salvage this one…
About the best that can be said is that orthodox quantum theory doesn’t conflict with New Age metaphysics.
Just like Big Bang cosmology doesn’t conflict with Christian creationism…
But that’s not much of an endorsement.
The upside is that physics is nowhere near a final answer.
So even though it might not help you win the lottery—it also shouldn’t deter you from your spiritual pursuits.
All the crap you hear about science debunking spirituality is just more posturing and pretending that physics proves philosophy.
The intellectually honest physicists know they have a wide-open mystery on their hands.
In the meantime, if you really want that Ferrari, you’d better start saving…
Those things go for well over six figures, and Mr. Bohr is way too dead to help you pay for it.
And if you’d like to learn more about the history of quantum theory, and how the Copenhagen interpretation rose to dominance, check out Quantum Dialogue by Mara Beller.
It’s a great read!
If you liked this post, please consider sharing, along with a brief comment of what you thought… It doesn’t sound like much. But these small gestures make a tremendous impact on building our community, and helping other wayward rebels find a perspective that they can resonate with.
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In any case, thanks so much for stopping by! – \m/ – Z
About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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