I am frequently bothered by mystics who attempt to point to scientific principals as the justification for their mystical beliefs. Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not attacking mysticism in and of itself in this editorial. In some ways I have an admiration for those who wish to contemplate the unknowable, the untouchable, the unobservable, and attempt to come to grasp with it. However, by its very nature, the mystical is inheritable in violation of scientific principles and cannot be submitted to scientific investigation.
For the purposes of this editorial, I am going to address certain concrete mystical beliefs, and the misinterpreted scientific principals from which they are founded, particularly the pseudo-scientific belief that one can alter the universe with one’s mind, and those who point to quantum mechanics as the justification of this belief. I am not referring to telekinetics, but rather those who believe that reality itself can be shaped by thought.
Such quantum mystics are legion. Many boards across the internet have been taken over by their prattle, and should one mention quantum mechanics on a public forum they emerge from the woodwork to start spewing poorly understood jargon and misused 5 syllable words. Many of them are truly intelligent individuals, and have been failed by our education system, and, as such, seem to be scientifically illiterate. But, I seem to be waxing into an attack ad hominem, which is not my intent whatsoever.
The belief in the human ability to alter the cosmos with thought is an ancient one, one derived from the natural human desire to control one’s surroundings. This desire is instinctual and has driven our history since before we could record it. Every piece of our technology was created from the need to control our surroundings, and thereby to not only escape our fear of them, but to conquer them, and to escape our own mortality. What is new in the game, however, is a certain principal of quantum mechanics that certain mystics found about one way or another and, failing to fully understand the principle, latched onto it and ran with it, pointing to it as justification for their beliefs.
I am talking about the Observer Effect, and by extension the Superposition Principle. Alas, by being frequently confused with the Observer Effect, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle also plays a role in this game. I shall address all three, and attempt to simplify and explain in lay terms what they really mean, and how they do not in any way imply that ability to control objects with one’s mind.
I could end the editorial with a simple sentence, but that wouldn’t be any fun, and wouldn’t fully educate anyone on what these three principles actually are. I’ll still state it, just as it is the simplest counter-argument, but then continue with a better elucidation.
Quite simply put, the misunderstanding comes from really a very poor wording in the term “Observer Effect.” By using the word “Observer,” one implies an intelligence is involved, when this is not the case at all. The Observer Effect states that the act of observation of any phenomenon will by the very interactive nature of observation alter that same phenomenon. To clarify, for an event or object to be detected, measured, or observed, something MUST interact with that event or object, be it a photon, a solid probe, a sound wave (which is really just a compression wave passing through a solid material, and is therefor just another particle interacting with the object), or an electro-magnetic field (which is communicated to the particle by virtual photons, but that is beyond the scope of this editorial). For clarity’s sake, the Observer Effect should more efficaciously by dubbed the “Interaction Principle,” for it is the interaction of the mode of observation with the event or object that is causing the alterations, NOT any sentient or intelligent observer by necessity (though one certainly can set such in motion by purposeful use of instrumentation to observe something such as an electron microscope, a rule, or a probe, or any other device).
Next in line is the Superposition Principle, which also tends to be half-understood, leading to a mystic running off with this understanding to wave it as their banner of “I can change it with my MIND.” To explain this, let me first start with a basic tenant of quantum mechanics. There is no such thing as 100%. Everything exists as probabilities. Every event, particle, or object can be described as a probability of something existing or occurring. For instance, a particle can have an x% change of occurring in State A, a y% chance of occurring in State B, and/or a z% chance of occurring in State C, etc. The event/object you interact with or observe is one of those States, as it was realized. Now, Superposition Principle states that, until that State is realized, until it is observed (or interacted with), the event/object exists SIMULTANEOUSLY in all possible States. A quantum physicist would describe this as: Event/object = State A probability + State B probability + State C probability. That observation/interaction doesn’t have to be done by an intelligent being. Merely another object or event interacting with it is sufficient to “collapse the wave form” and realize the State of the event or object. In effect, everything in the universe that exists at this point in time has been “realized,” it’s State has been selected, by the interaction (observation) of every other particle in the universe with which it has come in contact.
This leads to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (at least in a philosophically consistent way). One might state that, if everything is probability, and that the probability of every event or object has been crystallized by interaction with other objects in the universe, then isn’t everything predetermined? And the beauty of the physical nature of the universe is that this question is very easily answered as a resounding NO. Yes, the CURRENT probabilities have been determined by interaction. But. The next moment still exists as an unrealized superposition (simultaneous existence) of all existing probabilities. The waveforms are not yet collapsed. And mathematically, it is impossible to determine with exactitude just what probability of state will be selected for every particle. Statistically, yes, we can determine with fair confidence generally what will happen in certain events. But there is something working against us to prevent us from calculating anything with 100% certainty.
That something is the Uncertainty Principle.
In short, the uncertainty principle ties certain fundamental measurable quantities together and states that one cannot know both quantities with exact precision. There is a limit to the exactitude to which something can be measured. For instance, velocity (how fast something is moving in what direction) and position are inextricably linked. We cannot measure with exact precision both something’s speed and location. If we nail down with certainty one, we know nothing about the other, and vice versa (a similar relationship exists between time and energy). And the interesting thing is, this effects how the particle interacts with the universe. This fluctuation due to uncertainty eliminates predetermination. It allows for the unrealized probabilities to be possible, for the waveforms to unrealize and return to a superposition of states.
But as interesting as that is, it, in a way, is a digression from my actual point. That being that it is an misunderstanding of the Uncertainty and Superposition Principles and of the Observer Effect that lead certain mystics to believe that the laws of quantum physics justify their beliefs that they can affect the universe with their minds. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to do so. In all honesty, I don’t know. I would tend to believe that one cannot do so, as any attempts to scientifically verify claims to such effect have proven fruitless. However, as I said in my opening paragraph, the occult by definition and nature is unknowable, untouchable, and unobservable, and thereby is not discernible by scientific scrutiny. And as such, one should not attempt to fall back to scientific principles to defend it. Use other means, please.