The Mindless Quantum
Adapted from Victor J Stenger, The Mindless Quantum, Skeptical Briefs November 2007 page 7. He is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Colorado. He is the author of many works including Physics and Psychics: The search for a world beyond the senses (Prometheus Books 1990), which critically examines theories of paranormal realities in terms of all that is currently known in physics, especially quantum physics. His website is at www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger.Some self-help gurus such as Deepak Chopra claim we can do whatever we want, be whoever we want, and be rich and famous, just by thinking about it. And all due to quantum mechanics. They claim that quantum mechanics allows us to alter reality with our thoughts alone. Yes, it seems amazing, but can we believe it? In what follows Professor Stenger explains why the self-help gurus are wrong. There is nothing in quantum mechanics that allows us to alter reality with our thoughts. He starts by looking at the underlying physics.
Waves interfering. Light falls on a screen with two slits, which then act as the source of two new waves. The crests of these new waves (yellow and blue) then make bigger crests (red) where they meet the other's crests, or cancel out where they meet the other's troughs. On the wall they appear as alternating bands of light and dark. The experiment does not work unless the light is of one colour and the slit widths are similar to the wavelength, or less than 0.001 mm.
Later, in the early twentieth century, it was discovered that light also behaved as if it were composed of particles called photons. So it behaved both as a wave and as particles. And it wasn't alone -- all particles of atomic dimensions such as electrons also exhibited the interference shown by waves. So light and electrons were simultaneously waves and particles. It seemed weird, but as we shall see there is a simple explanation.
Enter the mind
Furthermore, we get the same result even if our decision about what to measure is made a long time after the light has left its source, as with light from a galaxy millions of light years away. The same light is either particles or waves depending on our decision. Some people claim this means our mind not only controls the reality of whether something is a particle or a wave, but also does so over vast distances and millions of years back in time.
At least, that's what the self-help gurus are claiming. But their claim is easily shown to be false. It works like this:
Explaining wave-particle duality
So, the photon is a particle, and the wave is just the statistical distribution of multiple photons. Which is why particles can behave like waves, and vice versa. In quantum mechanics this wave is called for historical reasons the "wave function", which is somewhat misleading because the wave function merely indicates the probability of finding a particle in a particular location.
Collapsing the wave function
Einstein called this "spooky action at a distance" because in effect the collapse happens instantaneously and everywhere. It seems as if our decision to make a measurement has reached out in space at infinite speed to wherever the wave function could exist including the farthest corner of the universe. What could be more spooky? This is why some people claim that our mind not only controls the reality of whether something is a particle or a wave, but also does so over vast distances and millions of years back in time.
But there is nothing spooky about it. It just seems spooky because of the way we described it as an instantaneous collapse, and because our ignorance of where the particle might be leaves us no option -- we are obliged to see it as being "anywhere in the universe". Of course we could be more reasonable and see it as being "somewhere in this room", even though this immediately destroys our vision of control over vast distances and timescales. But this would be to claim knowledge about the particle's position that we cannot possess. In a sense the spookiness arises only because we are being meticulous about our ignorance.
Strutting the light fantastic
In short, the collapse of the wave function is just an abstract mathematical device. Even though it happens instantaneously and therefore faster than the speed of light, no actual signal or other practical result can travel faster than light, so this abstract collapse is of no practical value. The self-help gurus are deluded. Nothing in quantum mechanics requires that our minds be able to control reality across great distances and back in time as part of some cosmic consciousness. As the science fiction author Philip K Dick put it, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."