Debunking the Quantum Mystics

Update: Stenger’s book has been reviewed by Steve Esser.

I interrupt the current hiatus of this blog for news of what I think is an important new quantum foundational book.

One of the ways that I follow the latest hot topics in Quantum Schmantum is via a carefully crafted Google Alerts feed, which is quite good at throwing up articles that are getting attention in the mainstream science press. It does need to be carefully crafted though, because a basic search on the word “quantum” is dominated by a James Bond movie, a video game, a 1990’s television series and, worst of all, a whole lot of quantum mystical mumbo jumbo influenced by things like What the Bleep Do We Know, The Secret, Deepak Chopra, etc. Unfortunately, this sort of stuff seems to be more popular than ever and is even getting celebrity endorsment from the likes of Carmen Elektra

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Unfortunately, however carefully crafted your search is, quite a lot of quantum nonsense will always make it through, so I usually just ignore links with suspect titles. Recently though, the feed has been turning up a lot of links with titles like “Quantum Physics and God”, so much so that I was eventually tempted to click through to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out that these articles were all referring to a new book Quantum Gods: Creation, Chaos, and the Search for Cosmic Consciousness by Victor Stenger who is perhaps best known for his nu athieism book God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Amongst other things, the new book is aimed at debunking the claims of the quantum mystics.

For a long time, I have thought that a book that clearly sets out the case against the quantum mystics is a good idea. I don’t imagine that many people who actually believe in this stuff will read the book, although some may get drawn in by the fact that the title does not suggest that the ideas are going to be debunked. More importantly, however, this is ammunition for scientifically literate people, who may not be well versed in quantum theory, to use when they come up against quantum nonsense.

I have not read the book yet, and I am unlikely to do so in the near future due to my current illness. I would like to add it to my carefully curated Amazon Store of books about quantum theory, but I have a policy of not including any books that I haven’t read, since there are a lot of bad expositions of quantum theory in the popular literature. My main concern is whether Stenger manages to clearly separate the argument against quantum mysticism from his more general concerns about whether or not science is compatible with new age mystical beliefs. In my view, it is one thing to hold a set of new age mumbo jumbo beliefs and quite another thing to believe they are supported by quantum theory. The latter is clearly false, independently of the general debate about new age ideas. For one thing, a large part of the message of things like The Secret and What The Bleep… seems to be that you can make good things happen by the power of positive thinking. I can certainly imagine that this is true to an extent in the realm of human affairs, but that is a matter of psychology and sociology rather than quantum physics. I am encouraged by the fact that Stenger is also the author of a 1997 article from the Skeptical Inquirer, which was my previous go to link for people in need of some quantum debunking. Since I think this is likely to be an important book, I may decide to relax my policy and add the book anyway, provided enough of my trusted colleagues and commenters tell me that the book is accurate. So go out and read!

I’ll leave you with a confrontation between Richard Dawkins and Deepak Chopra, which I couldn’t resist adding to this post.

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Debunking the Quantum Mystics by Matthew Leifer, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

7 Responses to Debunking the Quantum Mystics

  1. It’s not a whole book, but I do have one chapter in the forthcoming book talking about how Chopra et al. are peddling crap. The dog has a low opinion of them as well…

  2. Chad,

    Yes, I vaguely remember reading that in an earlier draft of your book. I’m curious to know how much of the Chopra et. al. stuff you managed to get through when you were researching it. I think that one of the reasons why this stuff has not been thoroughly debunked is that few serious people have actually read much of their stuff. For me, even sitting through What The Bleep… was a painful experience.

  3. The whole thing stayed in. That chapter was one of the least edited in the book, which I found kind of surprising– I was expecting more comments than I got, but my editor was fine with the whole thing.

    Of course, my anti-mystic comments were pretty mild, as such things go. You can find a lot harsher on the Internet.

  4. Agreed that Deepak et al. are peddling a lot of bunk, but it seems to me that evangelical atheism is as much a belief as evangelical theism. And to claim science proves there is no such thing as God is (again, it seems to me) to misunderstand the nature of science. Not to say someone can’t claim science as the basis for their belief in atheism, but science itself remains mute on the matter.

  5. Well, I think I more or less said as much in the blog post:

    My main concern is whether Stenger manages to clearly separate the argument against quantum mysticism from his more general concerns about whether or not science is compatible with new age mystical beliefs. In my view, it is one thing to hold a set of new age mumbo jumbo beliefs and quite another thing to believe they are supported by quantum theory. The latter is clearly false, independently of the general debate about new age ideas.

    In any case, quantum quackery is generally less about God and more about new age spiritual beliefs. I hope that Stenger has separated these different arguments in his book.

  6. Your blog post has raised my interest enough that I’m going to order the book. I have one concern which is that in the course of debunking, sometimes debunkers say or imply things which aren’t quite true (glossing over some of the difficulties): e.g. implying decoherence theory solves the measurement problem, and saying QM only has relevance to nature at the micro-scale. In the last paragraph of the article you link to Stenger says “Newtonian physics…follows smoothly as the many-particle limit of quantum mechanics.” There is a sense in which that’s true, but I worry it’s too dismissive of the subject.
    Best regards,
    – Steve Esser

  7. Yes, I know this all too well. We are still waiting for a definitive popular book on the foundations of quantum theory that does not make such errors/simplifications. I fear that too much equivocation may put off the intended audience though.

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