Tuesday, March 14, 2006

How far out is out

I just read a New York Times article called Far Out Man, But Is It Quantum Physics? about the movie "What the Bleep", and more broadly about the many books out there that based on a bit of half-baked physics make rash and far-fetched conclusions about the nature of reality. The writer characterizes this tendency as "purporting to argue...that reality is just a mental construct that we can rearrange and improve, if we are enlightened or determined enough." In contrast, he offers real science, i.e., the atomism of Democritus, which if memory serves came down the pike a little before quantum physics, but never mind. The point is that real physicists never indulge in metaphysical speculation (Ken Wilber somehow filled a book full full of these speculations by Einstein, Schroedinger, Born, and others in Quantum Questions). Thank you, New York Times, for once again setting us straight. "I would have the courage to see the world clearly, in all its cruelty and beauty," says the writer: in other words, without the crutch of mysticism that makes us believe there is some free will in the universe and that our consciousness can affect such things as the way the atoms randomly crash into each other and thereby create our world and everything in it.

The mystery of subjectivity, then, is conveniently consigned to being an epiphenomenon of materiality. Consciousness itself is just a product of blind, random physical processes. We never seem to be able to get beyond that level of discussion in the popular media. Reality is blind chance: deal with it, says NYT. Thank you, scions of the real, for illuminating this truth for us, but I prefer my comforting illusion that consciousness is a player. Because if I believed everything you and Judy Miller said, there would actually be weapons of mass destruction and those quantum fluctuations going on in a place called Iraq would actually have a bleeping point.


Tim Kanwar said...

To me this “quantum mysticism” looks like physics's answer to the bad biology of intelligent design. Both are premised on faith and on scientific theories that are decades out of date. And both movements have acquired followers for the same basic reason: "We want to know that God loves us, that we are the pinnacle of evolution."

Which leads to the one truly interesting question that the article raises: what does the intelligent design community think of quantum mysticism?

If individual minds control the reality that surround them, does that mean that an intelligent designer created human beings who are, in their own fashion, intelligent designers themselves? Talk about constructing in one's own image. And if the original intelligent designer was, as many intelligent design proponents not-so-secretly speculate, the big G-O-D himself, does that mean that all of us, in the process of manipulating the reality around us, are guilty of "playing god"? Time to focus our mental energy and magic up some bigger britches.

Paul said...

Thanks for writing this. I agree wholeheartedly that this backlash against quantum mysticsm is a reactionary defense mechanism that the materialists are having from the onslaught of evangelical creationism, which it has nothing in common with. In their defensiveness, the materialists have become as dogmatic and reactionary as those they trash.

qubik said...

Good point, Paul. To answer Tim, I don't think quantum mysticism, if you want to call it that, is premised on God at all, or encouraging us to believe we can play God; if anything it is closer to a laissez-faire spirituality in which God is not a necessary feature. Hardly an "intelligent design" point of view, which intends to reinforce the idea of God's existence. The philosophical resonances of quantum physics have more to do with probing the role of consciousness in constructing the reality we perceive. This, by the way, is not quite the same as asserting that individual minds can control reality. For myself, I have no need or desire to control it—I'm just trying to understand it a little better.