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Quantum Leaps

Posted on Apr. 21, 2015 by | Comments (22)
Deepak Chopra in 2006. (Image by Mitchell Aidelbaum, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)

Deepak Chopra in 2006. (Image by Mitchell Aidelbaum, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Cropped.)

In the Middle Ages scholars drew correspondences between the microcosm (the earth) and the macrocosm (the heavens), finding linkages between bodily organs, earthly minerals, and heavenly bodies that made the entire system interlocking and interdependent. Gold corresponds to the Sun, which corresponds to the Heart. Silver corresponds to the Moon, which corresponds to the Brain. Mercury corresponds to the planet Mercury, which corresponds to the Gonads. The four elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire were astrologically coupled to the four humor-based personality traits of melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric.

In March of 2010 Sam Harris and I participated in a debate with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston at Caltech that was filmed by ABC’s Nightline and viewed by millions (video). Deepak hammered out a series of scientistic-sounding arguments for the existence of a nonlocal spooky-action-at-a-distance quantum force that reminded me of a Middle Ages-inspired correspondence between macrocosm world events and microcosm quantum effects, well captured in the following chart (inspired by my friend and colleague Stephen Beckner):

God 1.0 God 2.0
Omnipresent Non-Local
Fully Man/Fully God Wave/Particle Duality
Miracles Wave Function Collapse
Leap of Faith Quantum Leap
Transubstantiation Heisenberg Uncertainty
Council Of Rome Copenhagen Interpretation
Supernatural forces Anti-Matter
Heaven Dark Energy
Hell Dark Matter
Eternity Space/Time Continuum
Prayer Quantum Entanglement
The Godhead General Relativity
The Trinity Special Relativity
Forgiveness of Sin Quantum Erasure
Virgin Birth Quantum Decoherence
Resurrection Virtual Reality

Deepak believes that the weirdness of the quantum world (such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) can be linked to certain mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness). This supposition is based on the work of the tandem team of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light in scientific circles.

Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. The conjecture is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons and thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness. Since a wave function collapse can only come about when an atom is “observed” (i.e., affected in any way by something else), “mind” may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms to molecules to neurons to….

In reality, the gap between microcosm quantum effects and macrocosm world events is too large to bridge. In his 1995 book The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Prometheus Books) the late physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum mechanically the system’s 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 three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no microcosm—macrocosm connection. Subatomic particles may be altered when they are observed, but contrary to what Deepak believes, the moon is there even if no one looks at it.

Deepak’s use and abuse of quantum physics is what the Caltech quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle,” which is when you string together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and assume that explains something in the regular macro world in which we live. “The mind is like an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom,” Chopra writes in his 2006 book Life After Death. “Until an observer appears, electrons have no physical identity in the world; there is only the amorphous cloud. In the same way, imagine that there is a cloud of possibilities open to the brain at every moment (consisting of words, memories, ideas, and images I could choose from). When the mind gives a signal, one of these possibilities coalesces from the cloud and becomes a thought in the brain, just as an energy wave collapses into an electron.”

I’m skeptical. The microscopic world of subatomic particles as described by the mathematics of quantum mechanics has no correspondence with the macroscopic world in which we live as described by the mathematics of Newtonian mechanics. These are two different physical systems at two different scales described by two different types of mathematics. The hydrogen atoms in the sun are not sitting around in a cloud of possibilities waiting for a cosmic mind to signal them to fuse into helium atoms and thereby throw off heat generated by nuclear fusion. By the laws of physics of this universe, a gravitationally collapsing cloud of hydrogen gas will, if large enough, reach a critical point of pressure to cause those hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium atoms and give off heat and light in the process, and it would do so even if there were not a single mind in the entire cosmos to observe it.

As I have written on this topic before I should note that Stuart Hameroff has sent me links to studies that show quantum effects can happen at molecular-level scales (and thus could, in principle, influence neural activity). He suggests this paper as the latest research in support of his theory: Hameroff S., Penrose R. 2014. “Consciousness in the Universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ Theory.” Physics of Life Reviews Volume 11, Issue 1, March 2014, Pages 39–78, doi:10.1016/j.plrev.2013.08.002. Nevertheless, since we still do not understand how molecular activity in neurons translates into consciousness, making the jump from quantum effects at even the molecular scale into thought processes and mental experience seems to be unwarranted by the data.

Michael Shermer

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University, and the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Read Michael’s other posts on this blog.


  1. MikeB says:

    I’m immune to “quantum flapdoodle” because I don’t know what the fk it means.

  2. Melissa V Rentchler says:

    I highly recommend the bi annual conferences that are professionally taxonimized for your consideration

  3. Rick Shaddock says:

    You do not allow a fair debate response on your Forum, by banning people who do not agree with your forum moderator’s dogma. Likewise, you don’t engage Deepak in person. You write an article claiming to know what he believes. You have no direct experience of transcendental consciousness on which to base your assertions. This is phony, pseudo-skepticism. If you are really a skeptic, you will not be afraid to allow open debate with the person you are discussig.

    • Ken Farnsworth says:

      And yet, here’s your comment. Did you notice that Mr. Shermer said he participated in a public debate with Mr. Chopra in March, 2010? He did engage him in person. Did you also notice that when he summarized what Mr. Chopra believed, he did so by quoting Mr. Chopra’s book? So, three of your four points hold any water whatsoever. Reading comprehension is a marvelous thing. Your fourth point, relating to transcendental consciousness, has no pertinence to the discussion. It doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Chopra misunderstands and misapplies the physics. This is not an experiential thing. Do you just sit and feel the quantumness?

      • Rick Shaddock says:

        Actually watching the panel discussion you cite is a wonderful thing. Knowing the difference between a panel discussion and a 1 on 1 debate is a wonderful thing. Comprehending what they said is a wonderful thing. Four doctors on the panel slammed Shermer, including 2 from his own employer, Chapman University. He was chastised for lack of scientific thinking by Dr. Kafatos, Dr. Hameroff, and Dr. Tollaksen, as well as Dr. Chopra. Experiencing the higher states of consciousness, before you judge it is a wonderful thing. Start at 1:15

        • Rick Shaddock says:

          Sorry to give you “a bit of your own medicine”, a bit meanly. A truth seeker is always right to question. Transcendental Consciousness has absolute pertinence to the discussion. The experience of TC has measurable and unique neurophysiologic correlates, including lower heart and breath rate, along with increased galvanic skin resistance, EEG brain wave coherence, and neural plasticity. There are over 300 studies on TM and its benefits, in peer reviewed scientific journals, including studies funded at the conservative NIH.

          Dr. Chopra experiences TC twice a day. Dr. Shermer evidently has not, but he could with practice. Until then, he is right to be skeptical about it and call it woo. No one can fully convey TC in words, like trying to describe the taste of an apple. It can’t be faked. Once you experience TC you know it.

          Plato described the meditation technique called the Dialectic (taught at The Academy in The Republic) as “turning the mind in the opposite direction” – towards the source of thought.

          “Bending the mind over backwards” or “back flipping” and achieving TC usually takes months of training, as any neuro-physical skill does – TM regularly for 20 minutes twice a day. Likewise, one does not simply do a back bend or flip the first day of gymnastics class. There are exceptions, such as kids on the Olympic team, who achieve it the first days. For most, it takes time.

          I hope you and Dr. Shermer will practice TM twice a day and soon experience TC. It is “woo” until you experience it for yourself. TC is your birth right, normal functioning, and has many health benefits. Our minds are amazingly flexible, can turn 180 degrees around” (to use Plato’s Allegory of the Cave) and can be aware of the source of thought, especially in a calm state of mind.

  4. kennwrite says:

    The odd thing about saying that ‘until an observer appears, electrons have no physical identity in the world,’ is that the statement contains no useful information or application in the known universe; it couldn’t. It would take an observer of electrons to make the statement in the first place. All statements about identifying electrons contain thd act of using energy containing elect rons in order to make this statement, such as what I’m doing now to write this denial thag there is any truth to the above-mentioned quote. In order to make the statement, the contrary is true; all electrons observed will always involve an observer. From this statement, it follows that if electrons are observed, they can potentially be used to produce energy, as evidenced by the fsct that a lithium ion battery lets me make this comment using an electronic device. No statement can be made without using electrons. If there are unobserved electrons, it’s because not all energy is being used at all times. When it is, then in some form or manner, it is being observed, such as the onservation that my potted cactus is growin even while I’m sleeping. How do I know this? When I wake up, I see that it grew. Time for a bigger pot. Thank God I can utilize enough energy to construct enough thought to make the decision to buy a bigger pit, or my cactus would die without room to grow. However, if I, the observer, don’t check to see if my cactus is still in its pot every morning, maybe it won’f really be there. Only one solution is possible: Set my alarm every to go off every 10 minutes, and check to see if my cactus is still there; it’s worth losing sleep over … I guess.

  5. Mark Neff says:

    Michel, I’m still a non-beleiver, however do you remember when John Lennen prayed and asked everone to pray for peace on earth. It only lasted about a few months. However it worked. Radical Islam is doing the exact same thing against us. There is no god however there is a link to the power of the mind. There is a power in prayer. It does not come from god. Something happens when people pray, or direct their collective minds to have something happen. I’m sure you can debunk this one in two seconds, However do a test. Ask all your readers for a subject, then ask them to create the solution, in their minds, then see if it happens. I expect no less than 2 out of 3 in results, the un-intended consiquinces will be a disaster, I already know that will be the price to pay. However this is bigger than you or me. The results will make people understand how they think matters. However when many people give prayer’s not to god, but to what they would like to happen, thing seem to change.

  6. Max says:

    “Until an observer appears, electrons have no physical identity in the world; there is only the amorphous cloud.”

    Has anyone ever asked Chopra where the first observer came from, and what existed before that? And what counts as an observer? Do worms count? Or bacteria?

  7. Max says:

    The chart reminds of the stupid claim that science is just another religion. Maybe the fools who make that claim think that Chopra represents science.

  8. Dennis Wilkinson says:

    Having been slapped around quite a bit on the topic, I think Chopra has backed off somewhat from his “quantum flapdoodle,” saying that he uses quantum concepts “as a metaphor,” whatever that means.

    But I think Shermer is on shaky ground on some of his points as well. “There is no microcosm-macrocosm connection” seems a rather astounding claim, since surely the macrocosm derives from the microcosm. We don’t just yet fully know how it does so. And as for the Stenger quote regarding when systems “can probably” be treated classically, the key word is “can.” It’s purely a practical consideration; for one thing, the math is easier, but it does not necessarily reflect the actual state of the system. Shermer also claims that the macroscopic laws of the universe apply with or without an observer, but there is no way that he, or anyone else, can know this. The fact that the behavior of macroscopic entities arises from the behavior of its microscopic components (how could they not?) and that the behavior of those is determined by the presence or absence of an ill-defined “measurement” has troubled, and continues to trouble, many legitimate physicists. And to my knowledge, no one has yet refuted von Neumann’s reasoning on the topic, where he painstakingly demonstrates that the “collapse of the wave equation” can validly be said to have occurred at any point in the chain from the microscopic to the macroscopic. Yes, I know that “decoherence” is the fashionable answer to this conundrum, but to my mind, it just “pushes the weirdness around,” since decoherence cannot pin-point the wave collapse either.

    • Max says:

      Shermer also said “the macroscopic world in which we live as described by the mathematics of Newtonian mechanics.”
      But if everything macroscopic were described adequately by the mathematics of Newtonian mechanics, then what’s the use of studying quantum mechanics? We need it in order to understand macroscopic things like semiconductors and the eye’s photoreceptor cells.

      • Max says:

        But I still doubt that quantum mechanics explains consciousness. Insects have brains and eyes with photoreceptors, but I doubt they’re conscious, and some scientists argue that even fish aren’t conscious.

  9. ron says:

    They are just angry because Deepak is unlocking and explaining the many hidden fluctuations brought about by universal consciousness that embodies the physical and spiritual realms. It isn’t until we unify the forces of potentiality and accept the non local state of our mind as it pertains to other energies and other kindred minds, that we will achieve a higher state of existence.

  10. zahoori says:

    No one uses fuzzy language more adroitly than Deepak Chopra, who has an uncanny knack for stringing together words and phrases so that it actually sounds like something intelligible is being said. For example, what do you make of this explanation for near-death experiences?
    “There are traditions that say the in-body experience is a socially induced collective hallucination. We do not exist in the body. The body exists in us. We do not exist in the world. The world exists in us.”
    Or this nugget on life and death:
    “Birth and death are space-time events in the continuum of life. So the opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. And the opposite of birth is death. And life is the continuum of birth and death, which goes on and on”. He mixes up pseudo-scientific jargon with some form of spirituality
    to make it sound profound but does any of it make any sense?
    In an interview he was asked about reincarnation and his response was:
    “Imagine that you are looking at an ocean and you see lots of waves today.And tomorrow you see a fewer number of waves. It’s not so turbulent.What you call a person actually is a pattern of behaviour of a universal consciousness.”
    He goes on to say:
    “ There is no such thing as Deepak or Jeff because what we call Deepak or Jeff is a constantly transforming consciousness that appears as a certain personality,a certain mind,a certain ego, a certain body. But you know, we had a different Deepak or Jeff when you were a teenager. We had a different Jeff when you were a baby. Which one of you is the real Jeff?”
    I leave it to your judgement.

  11. Scott L R says:

    The commenting person who pointed out the parallel between the chart and science distorting arguments about science being just another religion has made a very good point. There is that danger of +/- systematic befuddlement, and we should be careful to head off such nonsense at every turn. However, the chart is useful on another plane, in which we winkle out touchstone regularities and recurring patterns in how we conceptualize complex phenomena in large, emergent and apparently amorphous systems. Mostly it boils down to how we tell stories to ourselves and each other, which seems like a question for historiography, psychology and anthropology – all fields in which people struggle to approximate truth, yet in which mystical nonsense is often spotted in the wild. In the meantime, I say we stand with Murray Gell-Mann (is that really how he spells his surname? Why didn’t I know that?!), and call a flapdoodle a flapdoodle.

  12. Loren Petrich says:

    “In the Middle Ages scholars drew correspondences between the microcosm (the earth) and the macrocosm (the heavens), finding linkages between bodily organs, earthly minerals, and heavenly bodies that made the entire system interlocking and interdependent.” — there was also a “doctrine of signatures” that stated that medicinal plants resemble the internal organs that their medicines were intended for. Thus, liverwort got its name because looking like a liver meant that extracts of it were good for treating liver diseases.

    Such woo-woo is not only Western. The Chinese Wu Xing is a correspondence of sets of five entities or qualities, like elements, cardinal directions, seasons, colors …

    The best-surviving woo-woo of this type is astrology. It’s based on celestial-terrestrial correspondences. Some astrologers in past centuries worked out these correspondences in incredibly gory detail.

    Steve Farmer, has done some interesting work on this issue of what he calls “correlative cosmologies”, including speculating about a possible neurological basis. Presumably because it helps us organize large amounts of information.

  13. Bart Nedelman says:

    Dear Michael,
    I’ve watched Deepak for years, now, and without a doubt the man can take any number of perfectly sane scientific disciplines and make the most incredible intellectual Waldorf salad out of them. Deepak does make me laugh, though. When challenged, he lashes out with the most outrageous number of loosely-associated terms from both science and woo-woo land, very much like I would imagine a bi-polar on meth might do free associating.

    When I saw Deepak doing this with you and Sam Harris, he looked like he was throwing pepperoni pizzas against the wall, rapid fire, trying like hell to make something stick.

    You should have asked for combat pay for having to listen to Deepak. One could lose a serious number of brain cells taking him seriously.

    Bart Nedelman
    The Nedelman Report

  14. Gavin Ritz says:

    Not only is there dangerous dogma outside of science, there dangerous dogmas inside science. The concept of “information” embedded in matter (like DNA) is one of the largest, longest running non-sense in scientific circles. I have asked for over a decade for anyone to point us in the direction of any means of test (any instrument) that can measure “information”, any evidence that can corroborate this “information.” In fact there is even no theory of “information” as in “biological information or meaningful information.” There isn’t even a mathematical theory of “biological information.” In fact the concept of “information” wasn’t even considered prior to Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic approach.

    And “information” is now considered as a sound scientific concept. I think Claude Shannon would be shocked how far his mathematical theory of electrical communication has seeped into all areas of science.

    This is one concept “biological information” that requires lots of skepticism.

  15. Snowfire says:

    It should be pointed out that things such as wave-function collapse and observers are not even a part of quantum mechanics proper–the physics merely tells us the limitations on how precisely certain quantities are measurable, it says nothing about observers or collapse or whatever. These are part of a particular philosophical gloss on QM known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, an interpretation that has been the most popular one among scientists, but certainly not the only one consistent with the equations, and perhaps not the most parsimonious. However, there is the popular misconception that the Copenhagen Interpretation IS quantum mechanics.

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