Quantum Physics and the Mind

06.10.2016 |

Episode #9 of the course A serious person’s guide to positive thinking by Mitch Horowitz


A growing wave of New Age books and documentaries use quantum theory to “prove” the idea that thoughts are causative. Many quantum physicists protest that crystal gazers have mangled the implications of these experiments, in which measurements of subatomic particles are affected by the presence or decisions of an observer.

The truth is: quantum physics does raise extraordinary questions about the nature of the mind.

More than 80 years of laboratory experiments demonstrate that atomic-scale particles appear in a given place only when a measurement is made. Astonishing as it sounds—and physicists themselves have debated the data for generations—quantum theory holds that no measurement means no precise and localized object on the atomic level.

Put differently, a subatomic particle literally occupies an infinite number of places (a state called “superposition”) until observation manifests it in one place. In quantum mechanics, a decision to look or not look actually determines what will be there. In this sense, an observer’s consciousness determines objective reality in the subatomic field.

Some physicists would dispute that characterization. Critics sometimes argue that certain particles are too small to measure; hence any attempt at measurement inevitably affects what is seen. But there exists a whole class of “interaction-free measurement” quantum experiments that don’t involve detectors at all. Such experiments have repeatedly shown that a subatomic object literally exists in more than one place at once until a measurement determines its final resting spot.

How is this actually provable? In the parlance of quantum physics, an atomic-scale particle is said to exist in a wave-state, which means that the location of the particle in space-time is known only probabilistically; it has no properties in this state, just potentialities. When particles or waves (typically in the form of a beam of photons or electrons) are directed or aimed at a target system, such as a double-slit, scientists have found that their pattern or path will actually change, or “collapse,” depending upon the presence or measurement choices of an observer. Hence, a wave pattern will shift into a particle pattern. Contrary to all reason, quantum theory holds that opposing outcomes simultaneously exist.

The situation gets even stranger when dealing with the thought experiment known as “Schrodinger’s cat.” The 20th-century physicist Erwin Schrodinger was frustrated with the evident absurdity of quantum theory, which showed objects simultaneously appearing in more than one place at a time. Such an outlook, he felt, violated all commonly observed physical laws. In 1935, Schrodinger sought to highlight this predicament through a purposefully absurdist thought experiment, which he intended to use to force quantum physicists to follow their data to its ultimate end.

Schrodinger reasoned that quantum data dictates that a sentient being, such as a cat, can be simultaneously alive and dead. A variant of the “Schrodinger’s cat” experiment could be put this way—let’s say a cat is placed into one of a pair of boxes. Along with the cat is what Schrodinger called a “diabolical device.” The device, if exposed to an atom, releases a deadly poison. An observer then fires an atom at the boxes. The observer subsequently uses some form of measurement to check on which box the atom is in: the empty one or the one with the cat and the poisoning device. When the observer goes to check, the wave function of the atom (i.e., the state in which it exists in both boxes) collapses into a particle function (i.e., the state in which it is localized to one box). Once the observer takes his measurement, convention says that the cat will be discovered to be dead or alive. But Schrodinger reasoned that quantum physics describes an outcome in which the cat is both dead and alive. This is because the atom, in its wave function, was, at one time, in either box, and either outcome is real.

To take it even further, a cohort of quantum physicists in the 1950s theorized that if an observer waited some significant length of time—say, eight hours—before checking on the dead-alive cat, he would discover one cat that was dead for eight hours and another that was alive for eight hours (and now hungry). In this line of reasoning, conscious observation effectively manifested the localized atom, the dead cat, and the living cat, and also manifested the past, i.e., created a history for both a dead cat and a living one. Both outcomes are true.

Absurd? Impossible? Yes to that, say quantum physicists. But decades of quantum experiments make this model in which a creature can be dead/alive into an impossible reality—an unbelievable yet entirely tenable, even necessary, state of nature. Only future experiments will determine the broader implications of sub-atomic phenomena in the mechanical world in which we live.

For now, however, decades of quantum data make it defensible to conclude that observation done on the subatomic scale (1) shapes the nature of outcomes, (2) determines the presence or absence of a localized object, and (3) possibly devises multiple pasts and presents. This last point is sometimes called the “many-worlds interpretation,” in the words of physicist Hugh Everett. This theory of “many worlds” raises the prospect of an infinite number of realities and states of being, each depending upon our choices. And here we encounter the frustrating but persistent thesis of positive thinking, which holds, in some greater or lesser measure, that our thoughts affect reality.

For our next and final lesson, we will explore a dynamic philosopher whose ideas provide the closest New Thought analog to quantum theory.


Recommended Book

Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner


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