Quantum physics is claimed to support
the mystical notion that the mind creates reality. However, an objective reality, with no special role for consciousness,
human or cosmic, is consistent with all observations.
Victor J. Stenger
Certain interpretations of quantum mechanics, the revolutionary theory
developed early in the century to account for the anomalous behavior of light and atoms, are being misconstrued so as to imply
that only thoughts are real and that the physical universe is the product of a cosmic mind to which the human mind is linked
throughout space and time. This interpretation has provided an ostensibly scientific basis for various mind-over-matter claims,
from ESP to alternative medicine. "Quantum mysticism" also forms part of the intellectual backdrop for the postmodern assertion
that science has no claim on objective reality.
The word "quantum" appears frequently in New Age and modern mystical literature. For example, physician Deepak
Chopra (1989) has successfully promoted a notion he calls quantum healing, which suggests we can cure all our ills by the
application of sufficient mental power.
According to Chopra, this profound conclusion can be drawn from quantum physics, which he says has demonstrated
that "the physical world, including our bodies, is a response of the observer. We create our bodies as we create the experience
of our world" (Chopra 1993, 5). Chopra also asserts that "beliefs, thoughts, and emotions create the chemical reactions that
uphold life in every cell," and "the world you live in, including the experience of your body, is completely dictated by how
you learn to perceive it" (Chopra 1993, 6). Thus illness and aging are an illusion and we can achieve what Chopra calls "ageless
body, timeless mind" by the sheer force of consciousness.1
Amit Goswami, in The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World, argues that the existence
of paranormal phenomena is supported by quantum mechanics:
. . . psychic phenomena, such as distant viewing and out-of-body
experiences, are examples of the nonlocal operation of consciousness . . . . Quantum mechanics undergirds such a theory by
providing crucial support for the case of nonlocality of consciousness. (Goswami 1993, 136)
Since no convincing, reproducible evidence
for psychic phenomena has been found, despite 150 years of effort, this is a flimsy basis indeed for quantum consciousness.2
Although mysticism is said to exist in the writings of many of the early century's prominent physicists (Wilber
1984), the current fad of mystical physics began in earnest with the publication in 1975 of Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics
(Capra 1975). There Capra asserted that quantum theory has confirmed the traditional teaching of Eastern mystics: that human
consciousness and the universe form an interconnected, irreducible whole. An example:
To the enlightened man . . . whose consciousness embraces the
universe, to him the universe becomes his "body," while the physical body becomes a manifestation of the Universal Mind, his
inner vision an expression of the highest reality, and his speech an expression of eternal truth and mantric power
Govinda Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism3
(Capra 1975, 305)
Capra's book was an inspiration for the New Age, and "quantum" became a buzzword used to buttress the trendy,
pseudoscientific spirituality that characterizes this movement.4
Quantum mechanics is thought, even by many
physicists, to be suffused with mysteries and paradoxes. Mystics seize upon these to support their views. The source of most
of these claims can be traced to the so-called wave-particle duality of quantum physics: Physical objects, at the quantum
level, seem to possess both local, reductionist particle and nonlocal, holistic wave properties that become manifest depending
on whether the position or wavelength of the object is measured.
The two types of properties, wave and particle, are said to be incompatible. Measurement of one quantity will
in general affect the value the other quantity will have in a future measurement. Furthermore, the value to be obtained in
the future measurement is undetermined; that is, it is unpredictable-although the statistical distribution of an ensemble
of similar measurements remains predictable. In this way, quantum mechanics obtains its indeterministic quality, usually expressed
in terms of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. In general, the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics can only predict
Despite wave-particle duality, the particle picture is maintained in most quantum mechanical applications.
Atoms, nuclei, electrons, and quarks are all regarded as particles at some level. At the same time, classical "waves" such
as those of light and sound are replaced by localized photons and phonons, respectively, when quantum effects must be considered.
In conventional quantum mechanics, the wave properties of particles are formally represented by a mathematical
quantity called the wave function, used to compute the probability that the particle will be found at a particular position.
When a measurement is made, and its position is then known with greater accuracy, the wave function is said to "collapse,"
as illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Wave function collapse in conventional quantum mechanics. An electron is localized
by passing through an aperture. The probability that it will then be found at the particular position is determined by the
wave function illustrated to the right of the aperture. When the electron is then detected at A, the wave function instantaneously
collapses so that it is zero at B.
Einstein never liked the notion of wave function
collapse, calling it a "spooky action at a distance." In Figure 1, a signal would appear to propagate with infinite speed
from A to B to tell the wave function to collapse to zero at B once the particle has been detected at A. Indeed, this signal
must propagate at infinite speed throughout the universe since, prior to detection, the electron could in principle have been
This surely violates Einstein's assertion that no signals can move faster than the speed of light.
Although they are usually not so explicit, quantum mystics seem to interpret the wave function as some kind
of vibration of a holistic ether that pervades the universe, as "real" as the vibration in air we call a sound wave. Wave
function collapse, in their view, happens instantaneously throughout the universe by a willful act of cosmic consciousness.
In their book The Conscious Universe, Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau identify the wave function with "Being-In-Itself":
One could then conclude that Being, in its physical analogue at
least, had been "revealed" in the wave function. . . . [A]ny sense we have of profound unity with the cosmos . . . could be
presumed to correlate with the action of the deterministic wave function . . . . (Kafatos and Nadeau 1990, 124)
Thus they follow Capra in imagining that
quantum mechanics unites mind with the universe. But our inner sense of "profound unity with the cosmos" is hardly scientific
The conventional interpretation of quantum mechanics, promulgated by Bohr and still held by most physicists,
says nothing about consciousness. It concerns only what can be measured and what predictions can be made about the statistical
distributions of ensembles of future measurements. As noted, the wave function is simply a mathematical object used to calculate
probabilities. Mathematical constructs can be as magical as any other figment of the human imagination-like the Starship Enterprise
or a Roadrunner cartoon. Nowhere does quantum mechanics imply that real matter or signals travel faster than light. In fact,
superluminal signal propagation has been proven to be impossible in any theory consistent with conventional relativity and
quantum mechanics (Eberhard and Ross 1989).
Not everyone has been happy with the conventional
interpretation of quantum mechanics, which offers no real explanation for wave function collapse. The desire for consensus
on an ontological interpretation of quantum mechanics has led to hundreds of proposals over the years, none gaining even a
simple majority of support among physicists or philosophers.
Spurred on by Einstein's insistence that quantum mechanics is an incomplete theory, that "God does not play
dice," subquantum theories involving "hidden variables" have been sought that provide for forces that lie below current levels
of observation (Bohm and Hiley 1993). While such theories are possible, no evidence has yet been found for subquantum forces.
Furthermore, experiments have made it almost certain that any such theory, if deterministic, must involve superluminal connections.6
Nevertheless, quantum mystics have greeted the possibility of nonlocal, holistic, hidden variables with the
same enthusiasm they show for the conscious wave function. Likewise, they have embraced a third view: the many worlds interpretation
of Hugh Everett (Everett 1957).
Everett usefully showed how it was formally possible to eliminate wave function collapse in a quantum theory
of measurement. Everett proposed that all possible paths continue to exist in parallel universes which split off every time
a measurement is made. This has left the door open for the quantum mystics to claim that the human mind acts as sort of a
"channel selector" for the path that is followed in an individual universe while existing itself in all universes (Squires
1990). Needless to say, the idea of parallel universes has attracted its own circle of enthusiastic proponents, in all universes
Admittedly, the quantum world is different
from the world of everyday experience that obeys the rules of classical Newtonian mechanics. Something beyond normal common
sense and classical physics is necessary to describe the fundamental processes inside atoms and nuclei. In particular, an
explanation must be given for the apparent nonlocality, the instantaneous "quantum leap," that typifies the non-commonsensical
nature of quantum phenomena.
Despite the oft-heard statement that quantum particles do not follow well-defined paths in space-time, elementary-particle
physicists have been utilizing just such a picture for fifty years. How is this reconciled with the quantum leap that seems
to characterize atomic transitions and similar phenomena? We can see how, in the space-time diagram shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Effective nonlocality. How an apparent instantaneous "quantum leap" can be
made between two points in space. An electron-positron pair is created at C by a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. The positron
annihilates an electron at A, undoing the original vacuum fluctuation so that there is zero net-energy change. The electron
thus appears to make an instantaneous quantum leap from A to B. The distance AB is comparable to the wavelength associated
with the particle, so "holistic" wave behavior results.
On the left, an electron (e-) is moving along
a well-defined path. An electron-positron pair (e-e+) is produced at point C by a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum, allowed
by the uncertainty principle. The positron annihilates the original electron at point A while the electron from the pair continues
past point B. Since all electrons are indistinguishable, it appears as if the original electron has jumped instantaneously
from A to B.
In Figure 2, all the particles involved follow definite paths. None moves faster than the speed of light.
Yet what is observed is operationally equivalent to an electron undergoing superluminal motion, disappearing at A and appearing
simultaneously at a distant point B. No experiment can be performed in which the electron on the left can be distinguished
from the one on the right. A simple calculation shows that the distance AB is of the order of the (de Broglie) wavelength
of the particle. In this manner, the "holistic" wave nature of particles can be understood in a manner that requires no superluminal
motion and certainly no intervention of human consciousness.
Furthermore, since the quantum jump is random, no signal or other causal effect is superluminally transmitted.
On the other hand, a deterministic theory based on subquantum forces or hidden variables is necessarily superluminal.
Thus quantum mechanics, as conventionally practiced, describes quantum leaps without too drastic a quantum
leap beyond common sense. Certainly no mystical assertions are justified by any observations concerning quantum processes.
Quantum mechanics, the centerpiece of modern
physics, is misinterpreted as implying that the human mind controls reality and that the universe is one connected whole that
cannot be understood by the usual reduction to parts.
However, no compelling argument or evidence requires that quantum mechanics plays a central role in human
consciousness or provides instantaneous, holistic connections across the universe. Modern physics, including quantum mechanics,
remains completely materialistic and reductionistic while being consistent with all scientific observations.
The apparent holistic, nonlocal behavior of quantum phenomena, as exemplified by a particle's appearing to
be in two places at once, can be understood without discarding the commonsense notion of particles following definite paths
in space and time or requiring that signals travel faster than the speed of light.
No superluminal motion or signalling has ever been observed, in agreement with the limit set by the theory
of relativity. Furthermore, interpretations of quantum effects need not so uproot classical physics, or common sense, as to
render them inoperable on all scales-especially the macroscopic scale on which humans function. Newtonian physics, which successfully
describes virtually all macroscopic phenomena, follows smoothly as the many-particle limit of quantum mechanics. And common
sense continues to apply on the human scale.
1. For a review of alternate medicine, including "quantum medicine," see Douglas Stalker
and Clark Glymour, eds., Examining Holistic Medicine (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985).
2. For a fuller discussion and references, see Victor J. Stenger, Physics and Psychics:
The Search for a World Beyond the Senses (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).
3. L. A. Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1974),
p. 225, as quoted in Capra 1975, p. 305.
4. See, for example, Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social
Transformation in the 1980s (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1980).
5. Of course, in some cases those distributions may be highly peaked and thus an outcome
can be predicted with high probability, that is, certainty for all practical purposes. In fact, this is precisely what happens
in the case of systems of many particles, such as macroscopic objects. These systems then become describable by deterministic
classical mechanics as the many-particle limit of quantum mechanics.
6. For a fuller discussion and references, see Victor J. Stenger, The Unconscious
Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1995).
1. Bohm D., and B. J. Hiley. 1993. The Undivided Universe: An Ontological Interpretation
of Quantum Mechanics. London: Routledge.
2. Capra, Fritjof. 1975. The Tao of Physics. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.
3. Chopra, Deepak. 1989. Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine.
New York: Bantam.
4. ---. 1993. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old.
New York: Random House.
5. Eberhard, Phillippe H., and Ronald R. Ross. 1989. Quantum field theory cannot provide
faster-than-light communication. Found. Phys. Lett. 2: 127-149.
6. Everett III, Hugh. 1957. "Relative state" formulation of quantum mechanics. Rev.
Mod. Phys. 29: 454-462.
7. Goswami, Amit. 1993. The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material
World. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
8. Kafatos, Menas, and Robert Nadeau. 1990. The Conscious Universe: Part and Whole
in Modern Physical Theory. New York: Springer-Verlag.
9. Squires, Euan. 1990. Conscious Mind in the Physical World. New York: Adam Hilger.
10. Wilber, Ken, ed. 1984. Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists. Boulder,
About the Author
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 paper is based on his latest book, The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Prometheus Books, 1995).