Kooky history of the quantum mind: reviving realism
January 19, 2014 23 Comments
One of my hobbies in undergrad was to spend time reading and editing Wikipedia. Towards the end of my studies, I started to specialize in going through Wikipedia’s fat-tail, removing articles to non-notable individuals, and trying to counter pseudoscientists, kooks, and cranks. Trying to understand why people subscribe to pseudoscience; how to demarcate real and pseudo- science; and confronting, correcting, or trolling hokum masquerading as science has occupied an unhealthly portion of my time on the internet ever since.
I had a particularly difficult struggle with the quantum mystics of Wikipedia. Some of their proponents have long been active on the internet, and combined with the general confusion around both quantum mechanics and consciousness, they were a very difficult community to expose. An exceptionally hostile member was the usenet celebrity Jack Sarfatti, a proponent of quantum mechanics as a unifying force between science and art and explanation of consciousness.
Sarfatti had (and has subsequently restored) a wikipedia article chronicling his kooky contributions in greater detail than you would find for most top scientists. Around 21-30 June 2010, I started to dial down the article to more accurately reflect the importance of his ideas; he retaliated on my talk page:
How dare you remove my publications list because there are not enough citations? … Go back to the Gulag in Siberia – no doubt you are a former Soviet apparachuk who persecuted dissidents. You hide behind anonymity … if I am not a notable physicist then why is Professor David Kaiser of the MIT physics department writing a book in which I am prominent, and why did Martin Gardner write about me extensively in 1976 MIT Technology Review before the internet?
This approach of lending legitimacy to their brand of parapsychology by referencing physicists is typical of quantum mysticism. Unfortunately, there is a rich history of notable physicists (including some of the founders of quantum mechanics) wandering outside their field, making very silly philosophical or psychological claims, and providing fodder for generations of pseudoscientists.
Quantum mechanics is notoriously hard to interpret, not just for the public but physicists as well. The foundations of quantum mechanics is an active field of research, and currently it is hard to see a better alternative than the operationalist view. As you can imagine, things were even more confusing when quantum mechanics was being born. However, some of the thoughts crystallized in the Copenhagen Interpretation. Usually associated with Bohr, this philosophy was revolutionary and completely uncomfortable to the realist mindset of scientists since Newton (Howard, 1994).
The subtlety of Bohr’s interpretation (that was almost instantly lost) was that it was a philosophy of the theory of quantum mechanics, not of physical reality. In other words, it described what maps meant and how to interpret them, not what territory they were representing. For example, the non-determinism (not in the deeper computer science sense of the word) inherent in quantum mechanics was not interpreted as a reality of the world, but a property of how our best scientific theory at the time interacted with our prescientific concepts like position and change of position, duration and change of duration, and the relation of cause and effect (Howard, 1994). To Einstein, it meant that we had an incomplete theory (“God doesn’t play dice”), and to Bohr it meant that we had to be agnostic about physical reality and be ready to accept that some of our pre-scientific concepts are ill-suited for looking at the world (“Einstein, don’t tell God what to do”).
Despite how paradigm-shifting quantum mechanics was, there were bigger social forces at play: the Second World War and the birth of the American scientific-industrial complex. Just like computer science, physics losts its philosophers and replaced them with technicians and became a slave to its own technological success. It was in these technologically optimistic but philosophically baren times that David Bohm finished his training. He receiving his PhD from Berkeley in 1943 for calculations with direct applications to the Manhattan project that he didn’t have the security clearance to write up or defend; instead Oppenheimer certified that Bohn had finished his research (Peat, 1997).
With the power of the atom unleashed, and the humility of having physics overturned a distant memory, the post war physicists forgot the subtlety of the Copenhagen interpretation and mostly abandoned philosophy. The few that continued were confident enough to promote realist views that the world was the way quantum mechanics described it, that quantum weirdness was a fundamental feature of reality and not an artefact of the way our pre-scientific notions interact with our scientific theories. Bohm spearheaded this movement with his hidden-variable theories that like classical mechanics before them advertised a complete deterministic description of reality (Bohm, 1952). Unfortunately, such realist theories were shown by John Bell to be incompatible with locality (Bell, 1964). But the cat was out of the box.
To complicate matters, the physics gravy train was coming to and end; the early 1970s saw the Big Crunch in physics funding which lead to many physics PhDs without potential employment as physicists.
With realism back on the table and Bohmian mechanics largely ruled out, this surge of freshly unemployed and uncareful thinkers returned to the Copenhagen interpretation and read it not as a statement about the interaction of descriptions but as a discussion of reality. It was in this atmosphere that Jack Sarfatti graduated from UC, Riverside in 1969; by the mid 70s, Sarfatti and a number of other underemployed physicists formed the Fundamental Fysiks Group. Combined with the mysticism and Hippie culture taking hold of California, this resulted in a movement eager to intertwine (dare I say, entangle?) mind, consciousness, and physics (Kaiser, 2011). Copernicus was thrown away, and man — in particular the human consciousness — was restored to the center of the universe. Reviving this naive realism allowed Sarfatti to argue that “[t]he ambiguity in the interpretation of quantum mechanics leaves ample room for the possibility of psychokinetic and telepathic effects.” (Kaiser, 2011; pg. 73). Nevermind philosophy, psychology, or neuroscience, through the magic of interpreting quantum mechanics we would be able to do everything from remote viewing to reaching enlightenment in the entangled oneness of the universe.
This is part 1 of a series of posts critically examining the history of quantum mechanical theories of mind and consciousness.
Bell, J. S. (1964). On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox. Physics, 1(3): 195-200.
Bohm, D. (1952) A Suggested Interpretation of the Quantum Theory in Terms of ‘Hidden’ Variables, I and II. Physical Review, 85: 166–193.
Howard, D. (1994). What Makes a Classical Concept Classical? Toward a Reconstruction of Niels Bohr’s Philosophy of Physics Niels Bohr and Contemporary Philosophy., 201-229 DOI: 10.1007/978-94-015-8106-6_9
Kaiser, D. (2011). How the hippies saved physics: Science, counterculture, and the quantum revival. WW Norton & Company.
Peat, F.D. (1997) Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, pg. 64.