November 17, 2011

Quantum Blues.

It’s safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Richard Feynman (Physicist, Nobel Prize Laureate)

Let me begin by saying that I am absolutely, categorically NOT an authority on quantum physics. In fact, I understand just enough of it to understand how little I understand. Eight years ago, while a Ph.D candidate in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I took a graduate seminar in philosophy of quantum mechanics. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in the academic arena. We spent approximately three-quarters of the semester studying the mathematical foundations of the theory, as our professor, Jon Jarrett, was adamant that mastering the mathematics was an essential precursor to understanding the conceptual implications arising from the theory. Again, let me repeat: I can’t emphasize how mind-bendingly difficult this stuff is. Fortunately, I could get some kind of a handle on the conceptual stuff, given my flair for abstract thinking, but just enough to realize how deep those waters run.

Difficulties with mastering quantum physics aside, I am way into cultivating viveka (discriminative awareness) and I think that this skill (clarity and the ability to exercise reason) is a really important one to have navigating through life and, for those of us who practice yoga, it is an essential part of the tradition, which is explicitly philosophical. Shankaracharya, the father of advaita  Vedanta (non-dualism) in his Vivekachudamani  exorted us to cultivate viveka, or the faculty of discrimination, that we might have the wisdom to see our own nature truly and to recognize that this nature is essentially divine.  Viveka helps us to differentiate the real from the unreal, and bring clarity to our judgments. It also enhances all of our relationships, not least with ourselves. So, you might say that cultivating viveka is an essential step in creating a life well-lived.

A word on Professor Jarrett – he is an authority on the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics and holds a Ph.D in the Conceptual Foundations of Science from the University of Chicago. Pretty heavyweight. He also got tenure at UIC based on ONE article that he wrote about the philosophical implications of QM. This is basically unheard of. It typically takes about eight publications before you’re even considered for academic tenure. Lets just say that Jarrett is in a league of his own in this area.

It’s impossible not to notice the trickle-down effect of quantum mechanical theory into the culture. Terms such as ‘quantum leap’ ‘quantum moment’ and ‘quantum healing’ are bandied about in all kinds of contexts, and I must admit, I frequently don’t understand what they refer to. Particularly in the yoga world and the ‘new age’ movement people use quantum physics to justify all kinds of outlandish claims, like ‘you create your world with your thoughts’, ‘there are no absolutes, everything is relative, as Schrodinger’s experiment proves’ . I have no objection to people using quantum mechanical principles to validate their claims, but to do that, it’s necessary to actually understand the theory! Here’s the thing: as previously noted, the conceptual implications of quantum mechanics arise from the mathematics, which are foundational. Mathematics and philosophy are paradigmatically reason-governed activities, which is not to say that intuitive leaps can’t happen. They can and do, but they must then be backed by reason and well-thought out (and tested) theories. So, when people use to quantum physics to back up whatever claim they’re making, they should be prepared to submit their claim to the tribunal of reason which is the lingua franca of both quantum mechanical theory and the mathematics upon which it rests. You’d think? Wrong.

Recently, figuring that since so many of my Facebook friends are in the (global) yoga community, this would be a good place to tap into what people are thinking, I posted the following comment: “I’m fascinated by how many people in the yoga world (including famous authors like Deepak Chopra), and the new age movement, use quantum mechanics in a metaphorical sense and make inferences from the theory which are not valid. Tell me what you think about this…

The post produced over 130 responses and quite a vigorous debate, most of which was completely off topic and failed to address the question I posed. (Now I know that my rigorous philosophical training means that I have pretty high standards, but come on people, is it really so difficult to actually respond to a question?) For example, one of the first responses was “And are we all connected? Or are we just proportionally disconnected?!” What?????????????? How, exactly, does this address the issue raised? Well, the discussion about connection continued and pretty soon someone invoked ahimsa (non-violence), saying that people’s responses made her feel disconnected. I certainly strive to practice ahimsa and would not try to intentionally hurt or humiliate any interloctuor, however, this is an intellectual discussion not a referendum on anyone’s intrinsic worth. Some people did engage in a more robust way with the spirit of the issue posed and pointed out that there is an inherent bias in the yoga community against intellectualism, in fact a few people got really into it and provided some very illuminating discussion of quantum physics and how it has been misappropriated by many within the new age and yoga communities. But, I was saddened to note that for the most part there seems to be a deep reluctance within the yoga community (as instantiated by this debate within the Facebook microcosm) to engage in any kind of robust intellectual debate. Why is this? Why is that most people in the yoga community are more concerned with cleaving to the belief that we are all connected, than with doing some jnana yoga (philsophical enquiry)? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about connection…I LOVE connecting with people and I think there are many ways to do so, including by way of vigorous debate, and I think that the webs of connection between people are intricate and far-reaching. We are connected by our humanity, by empathy and imagination, and by networks of kinship and community, aswell as by shared beliefs, practices and ways of life. We don’t need to appeal to quantum mechanics to know that we are connected to others, our inter-connectedness needs no external justification.

And yoga is about so much more than ‘being connected’, among other things it is a systematic enquiry into ourselves and the world around us. Enquiries take many forms, you can use your sense of smell to enquire, just as much as your intellect, you can use your hands, there are many possibilities, the salient issue is that the method of enquiry should be appropriate to the subject matter at hand…so, if you are going to use principles from QM to justify some metaphysical claim that you make, doesn’t it compute that you should be open to the methods of enquiry and reasoning that yielded those principles? I mean, would you trust the claims of yoga teacher who didn’t actually practice yoga, or a heart surgeon who didn’t know anything about cardiology?

But back to quantum mechanics, and it’s misappropriation by many in the yoga community. Recently I read the following statement in a very nice article in a yoga magazine: ‘As quantum mechanics proves, everything that manifests externally materializes internally aswell. We are cross-sections of a whole, containing every element of that whole.’ I really tried my best to understand the statement in the light of what I’d learned about QM (I even went back and read the papers I’d written while taking the graduate seminar) but couldn’t, so I contacted Prof Jarrett to ask him if he could shed some light on the situation (in other words was there any truth to the claim). Here’s his response:

“When talking with non-specialists, I find it difficult to convey my still all-too-feeble grasp of the quantum world in ways that do justice to the conceptual structure without lapsing into regrettable     distortions and exaggerations…Regarding what I take to be the primary issue, there is no evidence of which I’m aware suggesting that the holism exhibited most dramatically in connection with experiments on systems in entangled states has any non-negligible impact on our experience with macroscopic bodies.  Otherwise, how could classical physics ever have been devised?  This is not at all to say that QM effects are not relevant to the understanding of the nature of consciousness.  But for now, we just don’t have the language even to attach a proper meaning to a claim such as  “We are cross-sections of a whole, containing every element of that whole”, let alone justify it. Even in the simplest systems exhibiting the behavior in question (two spin-1/2 particles in the singlet state), in whatever sense we allow ourselves to speak of one member of the particle pair, it’s simply a mistake to say that it “contains every element of the whole”.

A few things to note: as you can see Jarrett is an incredibly humble guy, note he talks about his ‘all-too-feeble grasp of the quantum world’ – this from someone who has written a hugely important article in the area! Although what he says is pretty technical, it’s not necessary to go into all the technicalities, just note that he completely rejects the claim and says not only is it mistaken, but we don’t even have the language to make that claim ‘hook on’ to the quantum mechanical world. In other words, the claim is a bust. Let me clear, I’m not trying to be a facist about this stuff and I recognize that there are many ways of making sense of the world we live in and our place in the world and our way of relating to each other. But, if you’re going to invoke quantum physics as a justification for some claim you make, then you better be willing to submit your claim to the same kind of rigorous methodology that gave rise to the insights of quantum physics. Unfortunately, for the most part, people don’t. They’d rather sacrifice coherence for something that sounds good and has the weight of science behind it, but this is just bad practice and it’s certainly not adhering to satya (truth)…the point is that there are some facts of matter that really are facts and reflect how things are in the world, and not just how we want them to be.

So here’s the skinny on quantum mechanics as written by theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss and published in ‘Scientific American’…

“No one intuitively understands quantum mechanics because all of our experience involves a world of classical phenomena where, for example, a baseball thrown from pitcher to catcher seems to take just one path, the one described by Newton’s laws of motion. Yet at a macroscopic level, the universe behaves quite differently. Electrons traveling from one place to another do not take any single path, but instead, as Feynman first demonstrated, take every possible path at the same time.
Moreover, although the underlying laws of quantum mechanics are completely deterministic – I need to repeat this, they are completely deterministic – the results of measurements can only be described probabilistically. This inherent uncertainty, enshrined most in the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle, implies that various combinations of physical quantities can never be measured with absolute accuracy at the same time. Associated with that fact, but in no way equivalent to to it, is the dilemma that when we measure a quantum system, we often change it in the process, so that the observer may not always be separated from that which is observed.”

He singles out some abusers of quantum mechanics:

Deepak Chopra: I have read numerous pieces by him on why quantum mechanics provides rationales for everything from the existence of God to the possibility of changing the past. Nothing I have ever read, however, suggests he has enough understanding of quantum mechanics to pass an undergraduate course I might teach on the subject.

The Secret: This best-selling book, which spawned a self-help industry, seems to be built in part on the claim that quantum physics implies a ‘law of attraction’ that suggests good thoughts will make good things happen. It doesn’t.

And, finally:

“For the record: Quantum mechanics does not deny the existence of objective reality. Nor does it imply that mere thoughts can change external events. Effects still require causes, so if you want to change the universe, you need to act on it.”

Yogis listen up. Having a strong physical practice requires showing up on your mat, doing the work and engaging with the dharma of hatha yoga. If you’re in doubt, you consult a teacher, a book like ‘Light on Yoga‘ or ‘Hatha Yoga Pradikipa‘ or some other authority. Karma yoga requires selfless service and non-attachment to the fruit of your labour. If you need guidance here, most likely you willingly turn to  the ‘Bhagavad Gita‘ or look to the life of someone like Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Wavy Gravy. Bhakti yogis embrace the path and practice of chanting and puja worship and the relevant exemplars and authorities in that domain. Those yogis who choose the path of jnana, or knowledge, engage with the substantive body of teachings in the yoga tradition from Patanjali‘s sutras, to Tantra. So why not extend this willingness to be guided by authority and those who have more knowledge to areas outside of yoga? Afterall viveka is a skill, a meta-faculty that we can apply to all aspects of our lives, not just to yoga. So, if you want to use science to back up your claims about the world, do so, but be fully prepared so submit those claims to the very methodology that gives science its privileged position in the culture and in the intellectual domain. This doesn’t mean that you have to give up on metaphor, poetry, imaginative language, or the irreducibility of mystical experiences, it does mean that you should extend the same willingness to be guided by experts in the field in the area of science as in yoga and it’s ancient teachings and codified practices.

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