The past decade has seen the appearance of a number of best-selling books, with titles like The Dancing Wu Li Masters, The Tao of Physics, Mysticism and the New Physics, Taking the Quantum Leap, etc., etc. These books promise, first, to explain the very latest discoveries of modern physics, the so-called “new physics.” Second, they promise to show either: (1) that the “new physics” reveals the underlying mechanisms of nature whereby supposedly paranormal feats like mind-reading, foreseeing the future, or bending objects by sheer mental concentration are actually possible – thus explaining the feats of physics hitherto ignored by establishment science, and “proving” their reality. Or, the other sort of quack book says: (2) the most recent discoveries of physics provide a firm scientific basis for many of the basic concepts associated with the mystical religions of the East — Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, etc. It is sometimes even claimed that the “new physics” makes clear that “mind” is the only reality, that the objective universe is a myth, and that anything we believe strongly enough is certain to come true because our own thoughts produce all the reality we experience! This latter claim is not made as often as the first two, but it is often implicit in the message of the books even where it is not explicit. Often specific physicists are named whose work is supposed to “prove” these claims conclusively. Most often named, probably, is John Archibald Wheeler, one of the most distinguished theoretical physicists alive. This charge against Wheeler is particularly ironic since Wheeler is an outspoken foe of pseudoscience, and has crusaded, for instance, to have parapsychology — the so-called “scientific” study of ESP — kicked out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The writers apparently see no contradiction between Wheeler’s evident disbelief in “psychic” claims and his supposed demonstration that such phenomena are “real” examples of little-understood, newly discovered physical laws! The books are full of contradictions of this kind. But what else are they full of? Let’s look at some of the claims made in these best-selling “new physics” books:
CLAIM: The “new physics” consists of the most recent theoretical developments in physics, none of which have been presented to the general public as yet, and none of which are well understood by physicists.
FACT: When you look at the books you find that the “new physics” consists of special relativity (1905), general relativity (1915), and quantum physics (1925). These theories are hardly “new.” They are thoroughly understood by all professional physicists and have been the foundation of all further work in theoretical physics in this century. The basic language of theoretical physics is relativistic quantum field theory, and all fundamental physical laws are stated in this language. In view of this, it is particularly remarkable that the best-selling quack physics books never mention the actual important developments in the theory of fundamental processes since 1925, including the development of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), an exact theory of the electromagnetic interactions, in 1948; Quantum Chromodynamics (WCD), in 1970, an exact theory of the strong nuclear force; and the Unified Gauge Theory, in 1967, an exact unified theory of electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. Gauge field theories of the fundamental forces of nature are specifically what physicists mean if they talk about “new physics” (which they rarely do). There are many books available, written by physicists for the general public about modern physics — none of them make any mystical or supernatural claims, and few of them have become best sellers.
CLAIM: Modern physics involves things like electrons going backward in time, and fundamental laws which state there is no distinction between past and future, thus explaining how people like Nostradamus could really foresee the future…he was just mentally receptive to the information propagating backward in time from the future, which coexists simultaneously with past and present, but is hidden from most of us by our materialist preconceptions and prejudices.
FACT: Whew! It is certainly true that modern physical theories (for instance QED, see above) do sometimes describe antiparticles as particles traveling backward in time. It is also true that a fundamental symmetry law of physics is time-reversal invariance: all fundamental processes have the same probability of happening “backward” as they do of happening “forward.” The distinction between past and future is nonetheless very real, and for complex systems such as ourselves any possible process is for all practical purposes completely irreversible. All modern physical theories remain completely causal – that is, there cannot be any reversal or shuffling of the usual cause-effect relationship. Causes are always in the past of effects, never in the future. (Otherwise the theory would display mathematical and logical inconsistencies which would render it useless!) What is more, quantum physics itself, at its most fundamental level, is actually inconsistent with the existence of information about future states of any physical system. If such information existed anywhere, whether available or not, quantum physics as presently formulated would not work. But it does work. Further, any faked up theory in which such information is assumed to exist (so-called “hidden variables” theories) cannot give results that agree with quantum physics or with experiment.
In every case tested so far, experiment agrees with quantum physics and disagrees with hidden variables theories. Thus we have a direct experimental test that explicitly rules out the very existence of information about the future. Far from modern physics “explaining” prophecy, it directly and explicitly rules it out — it is an impossibility if terms of all existing knowledge about nature.
CLAIM: Quantum physics involves mysterious, instantaneous communication between physical systems no matter how far apart they may be. This is shown, for instance, in the Einstein-Podolski-Rosen (EPR) experiment. Since this “quantum communication” is instantaneous and somehow “outside” space-time, it could be the basis of all so-called paranormal phenomena, including telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis, etc.
FACT: The EPR “experiment” is not an actual experiment, but an idealized example invented by Einstein, Podolski and Rosen to clarify certain conceptual features of quantum physics. There is nothing paradoxical about the result of the EPR or any other imaginary or actual experiment testing the ideas of quantum physics. Quantum physics works in terms of a state function which describes the entire system involved in a measurement, not just the object studied but the apparatus used to study it as well. After a measurement, the whole state of the system is different because a piece of information which did not exist previous to the measurement now exists: the outcome of the measurement. Since the state function describes the whole system, as soon as any new piece of information is obtained the whole state function over all space changes as well. This is in no way a violation of the laws of relativity, for instance; the state function is not a directly measurable, real object – it is simply a mathematical construct that represents what we can know or learn about the system under study. Quantum physics is completely consistent with relativity – indeed, relativistic quantum field theory is the basic language of all theoretical physics.
CLAIM: In quantum physics, the consciousness of an observer directly affects the system being observed. This is unavoidable; it is an intrinsic feature of any quantum description of nature. This is also the obvious explanation for such phenomena as ESP or foretelling the future, bending metal, etc., etc.
FACT: Gosh, we now have three different “explanations” for the same “supernatural” claims. Which are we going to believe? They aren’t consistent! However, taking this one as it comes, the comment is, NONSENSE! It is the measurement that changes the state of the system. No observer is needed conscious or not. Any measurement made in any way, deliberately or accidentally, by a human, a machine, or an inert part of nature — a rock that gets in the way and “measures” the momentum of an object it recoils from — results in the creation of information that did not previously exist. Our mathematical representation of the state of the system then has to change too, to accommodate this new information. There is certainly nothing strange about this; it cannot be otherwise.
We now turn to the claims, not that physics “explains” mystical phenomena, but rather that physics is the same as mysticism — in particular that physics is learning things about the world that correspond to insights already found in Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Taoism, etc. This claim is most often associated with a single person, Fritjof Capra. Capra was educated as a physicist (his Ph.D. was granted in 1966) but his knowledge of Eastern thought is extremely inadequate. He ignores the extreme diversity of Eastern mystical cults and sects, pretending instead that Eastern thought offers a single, common, consistent world view. This is just not true. He also does not seem to be worried by the fact that there is no possible similarity between any actual law of physics and any ordinary statement in any human language. The language of physics is mathematics, and we have never found any way to state its laws in any other form. What is the sentence that corresponds to a circle? What is the sentence that corresponds to the equation for a circle, x2 + y2 = c2? The “similarities” Capra offers between physics and his version of “mysticism” are superficial (accidental superficial similarities, for instance, between the Sanskrit alphabet and mathematical symbols) and trivial. His arguments are very like those offered by Erich Von Daniken for ancient astronauts…a man in a primitive drawing with a circular head is a man in a space helmet. Sure. Further, Capra’s main argument is circular. He argues that certain concepts in physics which have now been discarded as sterile or incorrect (the so-called Bootstrap Theory on which Capra worked for his dissertation, and the related S-Matrix Theory) are more valid that the theories physicists presently use, because they agree with certain concepts Capra (but nobody else) finds in “Eastern Mysticism.” This sounds like subjective validation, and that’s just what it is. Capra then turns around and argues that “Eastern Mysticism” is therefore more valid than other religious or mystical traditions because it agrees with “modern physics,” and the other traditions do not! We are right back where we started, and you will note we somehow completely avoided dealing with actual modern physics (quarks, QED, QCD, the Unified Gauge Theory, etc.), which has nothing whatsoever to do with “Eastern Mystical” writings any more than it has to do with the writings of P. G. Wodehouse, the Bible, or your telephone directory.
Anyone who bothers to read Capra closely will find that Capra admits there is no actual evidence of any similarity between physics and any human tradition. In fact he states, this “cannot be demonstrated conclusively, but has to be experienced in a direct, intuitive way.” Capra is welcome to his experiences, but they have nothing whatever to do with actual modern physics…or with real religions of the East.
ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (firstname.lastname@example.org).