Article from The Skeptical Adversaria

by Doug Bramwell

'Quantum mystery’ and ‘quantum magic’ - both these expressions are used by many physicists when they are trying to explain quantum theory to the layman. Presumably they are trying to convey a sense of the strangeness of quantum theory but, sadly, the rather mystic overtones of the expressions have probably encouraged pseudoscientists and New Agers to find, in quantum theory, a justification for their particular brands of nonsense. There are unanswered questions about quantum theory, and there are unanswered questions about, say, channelling. Therefore quantum theory must explain channelling - easy isn't it?
Quantum theory is 'spooky', as Einstein expressed it, in the sense that, at the microscopic level, the world does not behave in the way that everyday objects have led us to regard as common sense.

Physicists and philosophers, too often with little respect for each other's views, have been trying to interpret quantum behaviour for some seventy years, with little or no progress. It just does not make sense.

The mathematics of quantum theory in unquestionably correct and the theory's predictions are probably the most accurate in all science. But, however the mathematics is interpreted, nonsensical behaviour is predicted - and confirmed by experiment. Despite this strangeness, quantum theory is the firm foundation of the 'new industrial revolution' - the electronics industry and its progeny TV, video, computers and the rest of information technology.

Before looking at the way quantum theory is used to 'explain' pseudoscience and the supernatural, let us look at some odd quantum behaviour. A much quoted example is the case of two particles which, having interacted, have opposite 'spins' (analogous to the spin of a top in the familiar world), and remain strangely 'entangled' as they move away from each other.

According to quantum theory, neither particle has its spin determined until one of the two spins is measured - the two potential spins remain 'superposed' - neither is decided. What is determined is the fact that they are opposite. When one of the particles is measured, however, its spin is determined randomly and the superposed state is said to 'collapse'. At any time after that instant, even if light - the fastest messenger - could not have travelled the intervening distance, measurement of the second particle will reveal that it has a spin opposite to that of its already measured partner.

In the widely accepted Copenhagen interpretation of quantum phenomena, the critical measurement must involve the presence of an 'observer'. Some physicists interpret this as meaning just some sort of measuring device, but others interpret it as the presence of a conscious mind.

As we shall see later, this latter interpretation has proved a gift for those looking for a supposedly 'scientific' justification for believing in ESP, the possibility of communication with the dead, alternative medicine, and even that we each create our own universe.

Needless to say, the mathematics of quantum theory makes no predictions about the creative or healing powers of conscious minds, whether local or distant, incarnate or discarnate. In fact another quantum puzzle which has been taxing the minds of physicists and philosophers for decades, and known as the 'measurement problem', is to understand how strange behaviour at the microscopic level can be related to the apparently 'common sense' behaviour of everyday things such as tables, measuring instruments and physicists. There is no suggestion that merely mentioning 'consciousness' and 'quantum phenomena' in the same sentence solves the problem.

It is the lack of a solution to this measurement problem that leads to the famous case of Schrodinger's cat. You may recall that, depending on whether or not a gun has been triggered by a particle the cat, enclosed in its box, remains in a half-live, half-dead, superposed state until someone opens the box to settle the fate of the animal once and for all.

In its most naive form the idea that quantum physics can explain PSI is based on the strange behaviour predicted by the theory, and confirmed by experiment. For example, the fact that two widely separated particles can influence each other 'across space and time' or 'in a different dimension' (whatever those expressions mean), has been seen to be good confirmation of the genuineness of pretty well every extra-sensory phenomenon - telepathy, clairvoyance, and even precognition.

It has also been suggested that the reality of entangled states is an adequate explanation for the claimed lack of influence, by time and space, on the quality of PSI phenomena, whether spontaneous or under laboratory test conditions.

One somewhat more specific argument is that because conscious observation is aware only of the outcome of quantum collapse, it is perhaps the conscious observation that decides which of the superposed quantum states is actually realised. This line of argument has been extended to suggest that there is some basis here for explaining psychokinesis.

Most readers of this article will probably agree that such speculative efforts to explain phenomena as poorly understood as PSI is unjustified unless it results in predictions which are clearly defined, and can be tested by experiments in which they are clearly distinguished from other phenomena. It would be essential, for example, to distinguish between, say, telekinesis and precognition.

It is worth noting that even if some comprehensive quantum, or other physical, theory showed PSI to be possible, it would not follow that PSI exists. For that conclusion, good repeatable evidence would still be needed.

When we turn to attempts to use quantum theory to explain the origin of consciousness, we need to treat the suggestion with somewhat more seriousness.

First, we can note that even if quantum mechanics requires a non-mechanistic explanation, this would not qualify it to be regarded as the obvious explanation of consciousness. Consciousness may not require a non-mechanistic explanation.

Probably the best known attempt at using quantum mechanics to explain the origin of consciousness is the theory of 'objective reduction', by theoretical physicist Roger Penrose. He maintains that awareness is caused by physical activity within the brain, but that this physical action cannot be simulated by any current or future computer. He believes this to be true because non-computable numbers are known to exist, and the human mind can understand such numbers. Hence the mind can understand things that are, in principle, non-computable. He argues his theory, with detailed examination of current work in artificial intelligence, in his two books 'The Emperor's New Mind' (Oxford, 1987) and 'Shadows of the Mind' (Oxford, 1994).

To explain the origin of consciousness, Penrose speculates that a new level of physics may be required and, in his theory of objective reduction makes use of the concept of quantum gravity to explain how a superposition of potential outcomes might be caused to suddenly collapse within the brain.

Penrose's ideas have received serious consideration from a number of philosophers and scientists, but there are many serious biological problems relating to the manner in which Penrose speculates that quantum action might interrelate to brain activity.

Also it seems to me that even if such a theory were successful in showing how consciousness originates, it would not be one step nearer to explaining the 'subjective' aspect of consciousness, and this has been, for several centuries a primary problem for any philosopher who does not deny or ignore subjectivity.

Creating the world
The idea that the conscious mind is needed before a superposed quantum state can be collapsed has led to some of the most outlandish ideas currently in circulation. These ideas - on the role of the human mind in the origin and nature of the universe - appear not only in New Age fantasies, but also - albeit better argued - in more serious media.

The general idea seems, as far as one can find a coherent interpretation of the argument, to be that all human minds, past and future as well as present, are interconnected in some non-spatial, non-temporal way. The problems raised by such speculation is reminiscent of those with which traditional Christian theologians have been struggling in their attempts to give some coherence to the idea that God is omnipresent and eternal or timeless.

For most New Agers, once it is realised that some quantum physicists hold that human consciousness is needed to collapse a quantum superposition, there seems no hesitation in concluding that the whole universe is the creation of the human mind - even that every mind creates its own universe.

In the latter case, I wonder why my mind created a universe with all the apparent evidence that it has taken 15 billion years to get to its present condition. And I wish that my creation had a lot less misery and nastiness - or is it only nasty to me? It's the old problem of evil again - only this time I can't question God's motives - I only have myself to blame.

Alternative medicine is an area in which the word 'quantum' is used like a witch's spell to give support to almost any supposed treatment.

It has been suggested, quite seriously, that all ills can be cured by 'quantum healing'. We are told that quantum physics shows that the whole world, including human bodies and brains, is a response to the conscious observer, so that aging and illness are mere illusions. How the differing illusions of different observers fit so well together is not explained - or maybe there is only you with your illusions - I must not assume my own apparent self-awareness to have priority.

As is common among alternative medicine and New Age 'philosophers', quantum theory is again being interpreted as showing that the universe created by mind - whether a personal mind or some all-encompassing spirit - is an interconnected whole that does not reveal itself to conventional scientific investigation. The commonly associated idea that all minds are some how constantly in touch is, I suppose, comforting. In a somewhat different context, A J Ayer referred to such comfort as 'woolly uplift'.

An extreme example of the totally irrelevant use of the word 'quantum' is in a paper published on the Internet by an American organisation called the Institute of Holistic Studies.

There follows the perhaps most irrational rubbish that it has been my misfortune to read. In relation to physics, there is a mention of Einstein who, it says, "Proved that energy may change form - but never gets lost". That sounds like no more than the principle of conservation of energy, which was well and truly in use before Einstein came on the scene. What Einstein did show, by his equation E = mc, is that matter and energy are interchangeable - a fact in daily use for the production of nuclear energy. And the equation was derived from relativity theory - not from quantum physics.

The paper makes only one more reference to quantum physics in mentioning the phrase 'quantum leap' - a fashionable phrase in the advertising industry - which merely refers to a particle jumping from one energy state to another. Again it is impossible to see any relevance to medical matters.

The paper in which this all appears is divided into seven subsections. In addition to 'Quantum Therapy', the subsection headings include 'Multimedia Testing', 'Emotional Repair', and 'Full Spectrum Homeopathy'. At the end of no less than six of these subsections, three books - the same three books (one is on 'Quantum Therapy) - are listed, each time complete with details of how to order and pay.

Just physics
If there is an element of randomness in behaviour at the quantum level, I think it likely that it has no very significant relationship to conscious awareness, or the decision-making activities of the human mind - whether 'free' or 'determined'.

Whatever the solution to the measurement problem, I can only think and act as though cats are always either dead or alive, and that NHS drugs are more likely to be helpful than therapeutic touch or having magnets in my shoes.

Despite all the talk of holism and energy balances - even by some properly qualified specialists - and despite the inevitable scientific cock-ups, only physics and its derivative sciences - on the large and predictable scale - are likely to better the lot of humankind - if it survives long enough.