I moved to Austin, Texas in the summer of 2013, a city championed for being weird. My writing encompasses the intersection between science and philosophy; naturally, I thought the quirkiness of quantum theory would be easy to sell to an audience that valued strangeness. It turns out quantum mechanics is too easy to sell. Although Austin’s market place of ideas extends farther than Oklahoma’s panhandle can see, the openness has made room for new age gurus and quantum mystics.
It should be unsurprising that elements of eastern philosophy suited in quantum mechanical jargon sell on the bookshelves of a city that abides by the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” To give a taste of the zany: the beer selection in any gas station is proportional to its candle aisle, ranging from double chocolate milk stouts to ice cream sandwiches sprinkled with bacon bits. Cigarette and barbecue smoke clouds the air. A lizard man walks the streets. For a counter-culture slammed in the Bible Belt, it’s no wonder roots of eastern mysticism have found ground in Austin.
“Consciousness is fundamental” and “the observer creates reality” are chants that echo throughout new age chambers. One would be hesitant to deny that consciousness is fundamental to human experience or that the way we view life affects the way we live. Yet quantum mystics mean something stronger than these seemingly benign chants suggest. Specifically, quantum mystics suggest that consciousness is a fundamental constituent of the universe and that the act of observation cakes the makeup of the universe.
New age mystics misrepresent the observer effect in quantum mechanics to give credence to view that thoughts shape reality. In quantum mechanics, the state of a particle is described by a mathematical function called the wave-function. Rather than describing the state a particle does occupy, the wave-function describes all the possible states a particle could occupy. Squaring the magnitude of the wave-function gives the probability of locating a particle in a particular position. Uncertainty is transferred into the momentum of a particle the more precise its position is measured and, by the same token, uncertainty is transferred into the position of a particle the more precise its momentum is measured.
The fact that detecting a particle affects its behavior has been documented in countless experiments. If one measures an object’s position, then it behaves like a particle. If one measures an object’s wavelength, then it behaves like a wave. “The act of observation,” as is overly stated, “collapses the wave-function to a single possible state.” These experiments are upheld by quantum mystics as proof that consciousness chisels the structure of the world.
There are many errors coupled to this thinking, the first being the conflation of consciousness with observation. Equivocating consciousness with observation is a misunderstanding of terms unfortunately peddled by the fathers of quantum theory Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, among other physicists. Bohr and Heisenberg were using the term observer to refer to any scientific device capable of measuring particles; not human consciousness. The operations of the quantum world are mind-independent. Whatever else observer can be taken to mean, it does not have to involve human perception.
Furthermore, quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory that has yet to incorporate gravity. It could be that whenever a particle is detected, there is a physical decay of the wave-function that does not occur in the quantum mechanics physicists have come to know and love, but describes something tied to large bodies. Gravity could play a role in the observer effect, since it is the only one of the four forces of the universe that is unique to large bodies.
Another problem that quantum mystics fail to explain is how consciousness could pluck at the atomic harp string. The general consensus among neuroscientists is that consciousness is tied to information processing at the level of the brain and, as is more widely known, brains are made of atoms. Quantum mechanics states that a particle is in a superposition of different terms before it is observed. Therefore, how could consciousness collapse the wave-function of the atoms that comprise its brain without first having a brain to do the observing through? In short, how is the proverbial eye cast inward?
To be fair, the temptation to link consciousness to quantum mechanics is not only felt by new age mystics. A few scientists are of the conviction that consciousness and quantum mechanics are intimately tied together, the most reputable being the physicist Roger Penrose and the physician Stewart Hameroff. The researchers suggest in their theory of orchestrated objective reductionism (‘Orch OR’) that consciousness is the result of hallow microtubules inside our neurons that hum to the heartbeat of quantum based computations. Rather than being a conglomeration of tiny on-off switches, neurons are equivalent to an assembly of miniature computers. The vibration of the microtubules cause neurons to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating the symphony of consciousness.
The Orch OR has received a considerable amount of skepticism since it was first proposed in the 1980s. Critics note that microtubules are found in cells spread throughout the body—not just neurons. Other skeptics, such as the physicist John Taylor, have pointed out that the quantum effects which supposedly generate conscious experience generally occur at temperatures close to absolute zero; far cooler than the temperature of functioning brains. Despite these criticisms, however, Orch OR has yet to be dealt an insurmountable blow.
An obstacle facing the Orch OR is the same obstacle facing quantum mystics: explaining how quantum mechanics applies to the macro world. A system can only be treated quantum mechanically if it is on the order of Planck’s constant, which is a scale of distance under which quantum fluctuations are appreciable. The mass and speed of a neurotransmitter, along with the distance between the synapses, is approximately three orders of magnitude greater than Planck’s constant. In other words, the rift between atoms and neurotransmitters has yet to be bridged.
Quantum mechanics had a reputation for being weird far before Austin, TX made it on the map. Even Albert Einstein described the theory as spooky. Far from being kept weird, the quantum world is weird. There is no need to make it stranger with new age mysticism and muddled thinking.
By Nathan Cranford