Quantum Quackery

A surprise-hit film has renewed interest in applying quantum mechanics to consciousness, spirituality and human potential

ScientificAmerican.com/December 24, 2004
By Michael Shermer

In spring 2004 I appeared on KATU TV's AM Northwest in Portland, Ore., with the producers of an improbably named film, What the #$*! Do We Know?! Artfully edited and featuring actress Marlee Matlin as a dreamy-eyed photographer trying to make sense of an apparently senseless universe, the film's central tenet is that we create our own reality through consciousness and quantum mechanics. I never imagined that such a film would succeed, but it has grossed millions.

The film's avatars are New Age scientists whose jargon-laden sound bites amount to little more than what California Institute of Technology physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann once described as "quantum flapdoodle." University of Oregon quantum physicist Amit Goswami, for example, says in the film: "The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies." Okay, Amit, I challenge you to leap out of a 20-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground's tendencies.

What the #$*! is going on here?

The work of Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto, author of The Hidden Messages in Water, is featured to show how thoughts change the structure of ice crystals--beautiful crystals form in a glass of water with the word "love" taped to it, whereas playing Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" causes other crystals to split in two. Would his "Burnin' Love" boil water?

The film's nadir is an interview with "Ramtha," a 35,000-year-old spirit channeled by a woman named JZ Knight. I wondered where humans spoke English with an Indian accent 35,000 years ago. Many of the films' participants are members of Ramtha's "School of Enlightenment," where New Age pabulum is dispensed in costly weekend retreats.

The attempt to link the weirdness of the quantum world to mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness) is not new. The best candidate to connect the two comes from University of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose and physician Stuart Hameroff of the Arizona Health Sciences Center, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light. Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. Their conjecture (and that's all it is) is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave-function collapse that results in the quantum coherence of atoms. The quantum coherence causes neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons, thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern that creates thought and consciousness. Because a wave-function collapse can come about only when an atom is "observed" (that is, affected in any way by something else), the late neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, another proponent of the idea, even suggested that "mind" may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms....

In reality, the gap between subatomic quantum effects and large-scale macro systems is too large to bridge. In his book The Unconscious Quantum (Prometheus Books, 1995), University of Colorado physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum-mechanically, its typical mass (m), speed (v) and distance (d) must be on the order of Planck's constant (h). "If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically." Stenger computes that the mass of neural transmitter molecules and their speed across the distance of the synapse are about two orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no micro-macro connection. Then what the #$*! is going on here? Physics envy. The lure of reducing complex problems to basic physical principles has dominated the philosophy of science since Descartes's failed attempt some four centuries ago to explain cognition by the actions of swirling vortices of atoms dancing their way to consciousness. Such Cartesian dreams provide a sense of certainty, but they quickly fade in the face of the complexities of biology. We should be exploring consciousness at the neural level and higher, where the arrow of causal analysis points up toward such principles as emergence and self-organization. Biology envy.

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