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Quantum spirituality.

In his talk at a recent conference, Antony Flew defined spirit as "incorporeal substance." As a physicist, I can relate to that. If such a thing as spirit exists, then I have no problem with it being incorporeal. It does not have to be made of matter as long as it has "substance." I interpret this to mean that, although spirit may not be composed of quarks and electrons or other known constituents of matter, it still may be a meaningful concept, amenable to empirical testing or other rational analysis.

One test for whether a concept has "substance" is to use Occam's razor to excise it from all discourse. If the essential content of discourse remains unchanged, then I would say the concept has no substance. Of course, like most scientific tests, this can only be used to falsify the concept, not verify it.


The idea of spirit as a substantial component of the universe is of course an ancient one, fundamental to the traditional dualistic view most humans hold of the universe and themselves as part of that universe. In this view, planets, rock, trees, and the human body are made of matter, but matter is not everything. Beyond matter exists mind, soul, or spirit, an ethereal substance that may even be more "real" than matter - the very quintessence of being.

In the mid-nineteenth century, many scientists thought that the marvelous new discoveries of science, and the methods of science, could be applied to the world of the spirit as well as to the world of matter. For example, Sir Oliver Lodge, a physicist who had helped demonstrate the reality of electromagnetic waves, argued that, if wireless telegraphy was possible, then so was wireless telepathy. Lodge, like most others of the period, believed that electromagnetic waves, including light, were vibrations of a frictionless medium, the aether, that pervaded the universe. It seemed plausible that this medium might also be responsible for the transmission of thoughts, that it was the long-sought substance of mind and spirit.

The electromagnetic field, like the gravitational field proposed centuries before by Newton, exhibited a holistic character that fit in well with spiritual ideas. Matter was particulate, occurring in lumps, and analyzed by the distasteful methods of reductionism in which objects are reduced to the sum of their parts. Fields, on the other hand, were continuous - holistic - occurring everywhere in space, connecting everything to everything else, and analyzable only in the whole. Even today, occultists confuse natural electromagnetic effects with "auras" surrounding living things.

Although the atomic theory of matter was well developed by the late nineteenth century, it had not yet been convincingly verified at that time. Many chemists, and a few physicists like Lodge, still held open the possibility that matter might be continuous. The mathematics of fields had been successfully applied to solids and fluids, which appear continuous and wavy on the everyday scale. These scientists suggested that continuity, not atomism, constituted the prime unifying principle for describing the universe of both matter, light, and perhaps spirit.

This comforting notion was shattered as the twentieth century got underway. First, the aether was found not to exist. Second, the atomic theory was confirmed. Third, light was found to be a component of matter, composed of particles we now call photons. And so, discreteness, rather than continuity, became the unifying principle of physics, with the universe composed solely of particulate matter. Quantum mechanics was developed to describe material phenomena in all their various, discrete forms.

However, the situation was not quite so tidy as this short and simplified review may imply. The phenomena that originally led people to postulate its wave nature of light did not go away. Those observations were correct.

Furthermore, other forms of matter were shown to also exhibit wave properties. Electrons were found to diffract through small openings in exactly the same way as light.

The fact that particles sometimes behaved as waves and waves as particles was called the "wave-particle duality." Although matter was sufficient to encompass all known physical phenomena, the apparent twofold nature of matter gave diehard dualists some comfort. Some associated waves with mind. But waves and particles were not two separate elementary substances but characteristics of the same substance.

Whether a physical entity was a wave or a particle seemed to depend on what you measured. Measure its position, and you concluded that the entity is a material body. Measure its wavelength, and you concluded that the entity is some type of continuous field. Furthermore, you can imagine deciding which quantity to measure at the last instant, long after the entity. had been emitted from its source, which might be a distant galaxy.


Some have inferred from this puzzle that the very nature of the universe is not objective, but depends on the consciousness of the observer. This latest wrinkle on ancient idealism implies that the universe exists only within some cosmic, quantum held of mind, with the human mind part of that field and existing throughout all space and time.

Quantum phenomena seem to be very mysterious, and where mysteries are imagined, the supernatural cannot be far behind. However, despite these misgivings, quantum mechanics developed as a quantitative physical theory that has proven itself capable of making calculations and predictions to a high level of accuracy. After 70 years of exhaustive testing, no observation has been found to be inconsistent with quantum mechanics as a formal, mathematical theory.

Quantum mechanics dealt early with the problem of the wave nature of matter by introducing a mathematical quantity called the "wave function." Schrodinger's equation was used to calculate how the wave function evolved with time; the absolute square of the wave function gave the probability that a body would be found at a particular position.

In 1927, Einstein initiated a debate on quantum mechanics with Niels Bohr that continues today, long after their deaths, as others have taken up the arguments of one side or the other. Initially Einstein objected to the picture, retained today in most textbooks, in which the wave function instantaneously "collapses" upon measurement. He called this a "spooky action at a distance" because it implied that signals must travel at infinite speeds across the wave front to tell the wave function to go to zero in the places where nothing is detected.

To modern dualists, the holistic quantum wave function, with its instantaneous collapse upon the act of observation, has provided a new model for the notion of spirit. They have been wittingly and unwittingly encouraged by various statements made by physicists, some of considerable distinction.

Eugene Wigner is widely quoted in the new literature of quantum mysticism. He once said: "The laws of quantum mechanics itself cannot be formulated . . . without recourse to the concept of consciousness."(1)

Physicist Amit Goswami sees a "self-aware universe," with quantum mechanics providing support for claims of paranormal phenomena. He says: ". . . psychic phenomena, such as distant viewing and out-of-body experiences, are examples of the nonlocal operation of consciousness."(2)

In the United States today, alternative healing is all the rage. Traditional folk-healing techniques are touted as holistic, in contrast to the reductionistic methods of modern Western medicine. Again, quantum mechanics provides a source of inspiration. Two recent best-sellers by Deepak Chopra contain the word quantum in their titles: Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old.(3)


Despite the claims made in many books, neither psychic phenomena(4) nor the vast array of alternate healing methods(5) are supported by controlled, replicable laboratory studies. The research cannot be used as evidence for mind-over-matter. Nor can quantum mechanics be used to make these claims more credible.

As we will now see, the mysteries and apparent paradoxes of quantum mechanics arise only when we try to cast the theory in words instead of equations, applying the language of everyday human experience to a physical realm where that experience may not be relevant.

The words used to describe quantum mechanics in conventional physics textbooks were gleaned from the writings of Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Born, the primary authors of what is called the "Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics." In Copenhagen, the wave function is simply a mathematical object used to calculate probabilities. The results of measurements are not predetermined, but occur randomly according to the calculated probabilities. The measuring apparatus must be treated classically and is separate from the quantum system under study. No mechanism is provided for wave function collapse, and in fact collapse is not predicted by the Schrodinger equation.

Louis de Braglie, who first suggested that particles like electrons have wave properties, proposed in 1927 the first of the class of what is now called hidden-variables theories of quantum mechanics. He hypothesized that the wave function is a real field associated with a particle. However, Bohr and his supporters talked most of the community, including de Braglie (but not Einstein or Schrodinger), out of hidden variables and they lay dormant until being resurrected by David Bohm in the 1950s.

Bohm, who became the major scientific figure in the quantum mysticism movement, had shown that all the results obtained with the Schrodinger equation can be obtained by familiar classical equations of motion, provided that an additional quantum potential is added to the equations to account for quantum effects." However, Bohm's theory, as it was proposed, gave no new empirical predictions; neither he nor his followers have yet produced a mechanism for generating a priori the quantum potential.

The hidden-variables approach is based on the notion, which Einstein always believed, that quantum mechanics is fine as far as it goes, as a statistical theory, but that some deterministic subquantum theory that lies behind physical events remains to be uncovered. Einstein's famous quotation that "God does not play dice" referred to this notion, although he thought Bohm's version was "too cheap."(7) It should be noted that hidden-variables theories are not properly labeled as "interpretations" of quantum mechanics since they imply the existence of a deeper theory, not yet discovered.

In the 1960s, John Bell proved an important theorem about hidden-variables theories. He showed that any deterministic hidden-variables theory capable of giving all the statistical results of standard quantum mechanics must allow for superluminal connections, in violation of Einstein's assertion that no signals can move faster than light.(8) In the jargon of the trade, deterministic hidden-variables theories are nonlocal. In popularized language, they are holistic, allowing for simultaneous connections between all points in space.

Bell proposed a definitive experimental test that has now been repeated many times with ever-increasing precision.(9) In all cases. the results are fully consistent with quantum mechanics, requiring deterministic hidden variables, if they exist, to be nonlocal.

Instead of giving up on hidden variables because of their apparent conflict with relativity, proponents have taken Bell's theorem to imply that hidden variables are even more profound, providing for the holistic universe of the mystic's fondest desires. The problem of nonlocality is dismissed by claiming that no communication of signals faster than light takes place.

This conclusion can be proven to be a general property of quantum theory,(10) and will be true for Bohm's theory as long as Bohm's theory is consistent with quantum mechanics. But, as we have seen, Bohm's theory by itself has no unique, testable consequences. We can use Occam's razor to excise it from our discourse, and nothing substantial is changed. The notion of hidden variables has no use unless superluminal connections are observed. This has not yet happened, and so hidden variables remain a nonparsimonious alternative to conventional quantum mechanics.


1. E. P. Wigner. "The Probability of the Existence of a Self-reproducing Unit." In M. Pilanyi, The Logic of Personal Knowledge (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1961), p. 232.

2. A. Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1993), p. 136.

3. D. Chopra, Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine (New York: Bantam, 1989, and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old (New York: Random House, 1993).

4. V. J. Stenger. Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

5. K. Butler, A Consumer's Guide to Alternative Medicine: A Close Look at Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Faith-Healing, and Other Unconventional Treatments (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992).

6. D. Bohm. "A Suggested Interpretation of Quantum Theory in Terms of Hidden Variables," i and ii, Physical Review (1952) 85: 166.

7. M. Born, ed., The Born-Einstein Letters (London, U.K.: Macmillan, 1971).

8. J. S. Bell. "On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox." Physics (1964) 1: 195.

9. A. Aspect, P. Grangier, and R. Gerard. "Experimental Realization of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Gedanken Experiment: A New Violation of Bell's Inequalities," Physical Review Letters (1982) 49: 91.

10. P. H. Eberhard, and R. R. Ross. "Quantum Field Theory Cannot Provide Faster-Than-Light Communication," Found Phys Lett (1989) 2: 127.

Victor J. Stenger is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii and the author of Not By Design: The Origin of the Universe (Prometheus Books, 1988) and Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Prometheus Books, 1990). This article is based on his latest book, The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Prometheus Books, 1995).
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Author:Stenger, Victor J.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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