Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What do we really know?

A video and book that has received considerable attention
over the past few years is What the bleep do we know?
The protagonist, Amanda, played by Marlee Matlin, finds herself in a fantastic Alice in Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.
The video contains a strange mix of quantum physics, pop psychology, and new Age mysticism. A main thesis of the video is that there is a connection between
quantum physics (Schrodinger's cat and all that), and how we think. Indeed, by thinking quantum thoughts we can create our own quantum reality and control our destiny. Since I am interested in science and theology several people had recommended it to me. A teacher at my daughter's school was enthralled with it, and encouraging students to watch it. When I finally watched the video I was alarmed. It completely misunderstands and misrepesents quantum physics. (The macroscopic quantum coherent (Schrodinger cat) states it claims to exist will be destroyed by decoherence within less than a millionth of millionth of a millionth of a second...). None of the scientists interviewed in the movie is actually a bona fide quantum physicist (i.e., someone who regularly publishes research papers in international refereed journals).
Recently some colleagues and I published a detailed scientific critique of some of the key ideas of Stuart Hameroff (featured in the video) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). You can read his response here.

So what do we know? There are many things we don't understand. Quantum physics and consciousness are both strange and poorly understood. However, that does not mean they are related. There is a reality which is independent of what I think about it (a major theme in Barth's theology). How I think can have a significant effect on my perception of that reality, but it won't change that reality. This is psychology, but has nothing to do with quantum physics. Weird quantum effects such as interference, wave-particle duality, entanglement, tunneling, occur at the microscopic level (i.e., involving atoms and molecules) but do NOT occur with macroscopic objects such as basketballs and brains.

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