These days a lot of people try to marry their weird spiritual or mystical beliefs with quantum physics, one of the best examples being the pseudo-science expressed in the movie What the bleep do we know? (see here and here for some critiques)
I've done considerable reading in the new physics and quantum theory, much of it when I was researching my first book, "God's Whisper, Creation's Thunder: Echoes of Ultimate Reality in the New Physics."
However, I'll admit that my book can be criticized on the same grounds I didn't like What the bleep do we know? It was published in 1995, when I was still a true believer in an Eastern form of meditational, mystical religion.
I've maintained an interest in quantum physics and no longer am attracted to discussions of this subject that aren't founded in solid science. Recently I've read two books that explore the meaning of quantum theory, "Quantum Enigma" and "Biocentrism."
In this post I'll highlight what I found most interesting in "Quantum Enigma." It's on more solid scientific ground that "Biocentrism," which goes considerably farther out on a theoretical limb in its discussion of how consciousness not only reveals reality, but creates it.
The authors of "Quantum Enigma," Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner are physicists at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Their book was published by Oxford University Press. So they've got some solid credentials. Here's an excerpt from the back cover:
In trying to understand the atom, physicists built quantum mechanics and found, to their embarrassment, that their theory intimately connects consciousness with the physical world. Quantum Enigma explores what that implies and why some founders of the theory became the foremost objectors to it.
Authors Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner explain all of this in non-technical terms with help from some fanciful stories and anecdotes about the theory's developers. They present the quantum mystery honestly, with an emphasis on what is and what is not speculation. Quantum Enigma 's description of the experimental quantum facts, and the quantum theory explaining them, is undisputed.
Interpreting what it all means, however, is controversial. Every interpretation of quantum physics encounters consciousness. Rosenblum and Kuttner therefore turn to exploring consciousness itself--and encounter quantum physics. Free will and anthropic principles become crucial issues, and the connection of consciousness with the cosmos suggested by some leading quantum cosmologists is mind-blowing.
Readers are brought to a boundary where the particular expertise of physicists is no longer a sure guide. They will find, instead, the facts and hints provided by quantum mechanics and the ability to speculate for themselves.
"Quantum Enigma" is a wonderfully clear explanation of how consciousness intersects with quantum physics. The authors teach an undergraduate course on this subject to liberal arts majors, so they're skilled in presenting complex science in a simple way.
Often they bring quantum theory out of the realm of the very small -- where it is usually applied -- by providing examples of how things would work in the everyday world if they acted like quantum "objects."
Those quotation marks are necessary, because in quantum theory an atom, subatomic particle, or whatever doesn't exist until it is observed. Until then, a wavefunction is all there is. And nobody knows whether a wavefunction is really real, or just an abstract bit of mathematics.
We've been using the idea all along that the waviness in a region (technically, the absolute square of the wavefunction) is the probability that the object will be found in that region.
...Probability in quantum mechanics implies something far more profound than randomness.
Classical probability in the shell game, say, is the subjective probability (for you) of where the pea is. But there is also a real pea under one shell or the other. Quantum probability is not the probability of where the atom is.
It's the objective probability of where you (or anyone) will find it. The atom wasn't in that box until it was observed to be there.
Quantum theory has no atom in addition to the wavefunction of the atom. Since the atom's wavefunction occupies both boxes, the atom itself is simultaneously in both boxes until its observation in a single box causes it to be wholly in the box.
This is amazing. Rosenblum and Kuttner say it's akin to visitors entering a strange village where large objects obey the rules of quantum theory. They're shown two huts, with a man and a woman, holding hands, standing between the huts.
Then a hood is put over the head of a visitor. When the hood is removed she's told to ask, "In which hut is the couple, and which hut is empty?" Every time she does this, a door to one of the huts is opened and there the couple is, arm in arm.
Nor is her experience when the experiment is repeated with her being told to ask, "In which hut is the man and in which hut is the woman?" Every time she does this, the doors to both huts are opened and the man is in one hut, with the woman in the other.
But now we come to the quantum enigma. The visitor is told that she will experience the final version of the experiments that is the crucial one. She puts on the hood, then is told to remove it and ask her question.
Visitor: "Which question should I ask?"
Villager: "Ah, my friend, you are now experienced with both questions. You may ask either of them. You may choose either experiment."
Here the weirdness kicks in.
If she asks in which hut is the couple, a man and woman are found to be in one or the other of the huts. If she asks in which hut is the man, and in which hut is the woman, the man and woman are found to be in separate huts.
The visitor is perplexed. She assumes that the man and woman had to be either together or separated immediately before she asked her question. However, the villager replies:
I see what disturbs you. In spite of your training as a physicist, and your experience with quantum mechanics in the laboratory, you are still imbued with the notion that a physical reality exists independent of your conscious observation of it. Apparently physicists find it hard to fully comprehend the great truth they have so recently gleaned.
Indeed, there seems to be little doubt that consciousness somehow is involved with quantum phenomena changing from a potential to an actual state of being. There are ways around this conclusion, but they strike me as unsatisfactory.
One is the many worlds hypothesis in which all quantum possibilities are actualized, so in one world the couple is together in a hut, while in another world they are in separate huts. This would mean that anything that could happen does happen, but we're only aware of one tiny twig of the astoundingly vast branching worlds.
Another possibility is that free will is an illusion, so the visitor necessarily asked the question associated with the "destiny" of the couple being either together or apart. This is more plausible to me than the many worlds hypothesis, but still seemingly highly unlikely.
Pleasingly, the book's authors leave the enigma of quantum theory and consciousness as it is: a mystery. Here are their parting thoughts in the final chapter:
We have presented the quantum enigma that arises from the brute facts displayed in undisputed quantum experiments. We have not presumed to resolve the quantum enigma. The questions the enigma raises are more profound than any answers we could seriously propose.
The quantum theory works perfectly: no prediction of the theory has ever been shown in error. It is the theory basic to all physics, and thus to all science. One-third of our economy depends on products developed with it. For all practical purposes, we can be completely satisfied with it. But if you take quantum theory seriously beyond practical purposes, it has baffling implications.
Quantum theory tells us that physics' encounter with consciousness, as is demonstrated for the small, applies, in principle, to everything. And that "everything" can include the entire universe. Copernicus dethroned humanity from the cosmic center. Does quantum theory suggest that, in some mysterious way, we are a cosmic center?
The encounter of physics with consciousness has troubled physicists since the inception of the theory eight decades ago. Many, no doubt most, physicists dismiss the creation of reality by observation as having little significance beyond the limited domain of the physics of microscopic entities. Others argue that Nature is telling us something, and we should listen. Our own feelings accord with Schrodinger's:
The urge to find a way out of this impasse ought not to be dampened by the fear of incurring the wise rationalists' mockery.
When experts disagree, you may choose your expert. Since the quantum enigma arises in the simplest quantum experiment, its essence can be fully comprehended with little technical background. Non-experts can therefore come to their own conclusions. We hope yours, like ours, are tentative.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.