Quantum Confusion

July 1997
by Robert Novella

Quantum Mechanics is undoubtedly one of the most significant scientific achievements of the twentieth century. Its descriptions of the behavior of atoms and light have been substantiated in countless experiments for the past seventy years. It has elucidated diverse phenomena from the shining of stars to the order of the periodic table and it has spawned many of the technologies that we take for granted today, such as personal computers, lasers, superconductors, and nuclear power. The events that Quantum theory describes, however, are very counterintuitive and paradoxical when compared to everyday reality. Consider the following: experiments tell us that light is both a wave and a particle depending on what you are trying to detect, electrons can tunnel through barriers with no openings and signals can propagate through the universe instantly even over many light years.

The success of Quantum Mechanics (QM) and its apparent irrationalities have not been missed by believers of the paranormal, anxious for scientific justification of their beliefs. They have appropriated it to explain a host of psychic phenomena, including e.s.p., remote viewing, and the belief that human consciousness can control the content of reality. The fact that QM is bizarre, however, does not mean that it can be used to explain bizarre theories. Unusual behavior in the microworld does not necessarily translate into the macroworld; in fact there is no evidence to suggest that QM can be used as an explanation for paranormal phenomena.

At the beginning of the twentieth century physicists realized that classical physics could not explain the very small as well as it did the very large. Common objects of everyday experience, like baseballs and even planets, yielded exquisitely to the mathematics developed over the preceding centuries. Solar eclipses and planetary motion could be predicted centuries in the future or retrodicted centuries in the past. But the world of atoms remained extremely puzzling.

Conventional theories made predictions that could not be reconciled with reality regardless of the experiment. One of the glaring anomalies predicted by classical physics was that atoms should not exist; electrons should quickly spiral into the nucleus collapsing the atom and preventing the existence of stars and galaxies, and therefore life. Another problem was the prediction of an “ultraviolet catastrophe” in which solids were predicted to emit infinite energy when heated. These effects were, of course, not observed so either classical physics had to be modified or a new theory was needed that would more closely mirror reality. Quantum Theory accomplished the latter by positing that atomic orbits and energy itself is quantized. Nature, it appeared, was not continuous with smoothly changing and infinitely variable energies and orbits but came in discrete, grainy chunks. An analogy can be made between energy existing in indivisible units, just like people in the population. There can’t be two and one half people or four and nine tenths but only whole amounts, like three or four. The universe is quantized like people are quantized. This view of nature explained the bizarre predictions of classical physics and in the process changed our view of the world as well as its economies.

While Quantum Mechanics was being fleshed out in the first quarter of this century, it soon became apparent that quantum weirdness and paradoxes were inescapable. Thomas Young’s double slit experiment in the early 1800’s had conclusively shown that light was composed of waves due to the interference patterns it produced, but Einstein’s 1905 photoelectric effect demonstrated equally well that light was composed of particles. The only possible conclusion was that light was both, a “wave-particle duality.” Light has both particle and wavelike aspects that reveal themselves depending on the type of experiment conducted. If you look for particles, then light is a particle, if you look for waves, then light is a wave. Never can they both reveal themselves at the same time.

These mutually exclusive properties of light and matter were later codified in Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in 1927. This law states that it is impossible to determine at the same time and with arbitrary accuracy pairs of physical properties dealing with space-time and energy. The classic example of these so called “conjugate variables” are position and momentum, although many more exist. The more accurately position is determined, the less accurately momentum can be determined. Both values can be resolved at the same time but not with a high degree of accuracy. If position is determined precisely then nothing can be known about momentum and vice versa. This is not due to the inadequacy of the instruments at our disposal nor is it because we haven’t figured out a way to do it yet; it is a fundamental aspect of nature. In one stroke the uncertainty principle did away with Newtonian determinism and his clockwork universe in which everything can be predicted if extrapolations are made from the current positions and momenta of all particles. If these variables cannot even in principle be determined accurately at the quantum level, precisely predicting the future of a particle is forever beyond our grasp. For this reason long term weather prediction will never be possible because meteorologists cannot determine precisely the current state of the atmosphere. If human culture is in existence one million years and the pace of scientific advance has not slackened, the uncertainty principle will still be with us, fundamentally limiting what we can know about the universe.

One of the apparent paradoxes of QM, non-locality, has been used by quantum mystics1 to support their holistic view of the universe, that everything in the universe comprises one interconnected whole in which all parts communicate with each other at infinite speeds. Non-locality is the ostensible transfer of information at superluminal (faster than light) speeds, something that Einstein’s theory of relativity, and countless experiments, tell us is impossible. This, they explain, is how psychics can instantly know things that happen on the other side of the country or the planet. Even physicists are not immune to mystical thinking. As Amit Goswami put it, “…it is logical to conclude that psychic phenomenon, 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.”

As an example of superluminal communication I will describe an experiment involving what is called quantum entanglement, in which pairs of particles are correlated even though they are separated from each other. Certain subatomic particles can produce pairs of photons when they decay. These photons race away from each other at the speed of light and have certain restrictions with regard to their properties. If the parent particle had zero angular momentum (rotational energy), the resulting two photon system must also have zero angular momentum, otherwise spin would have been created from nothing, violating the law of energy conservation. Therefore if photon one has spin up in the x-axis then photon two must have spin down in its’ x-axis. In this sense the photons are entangled because the measurement of spin in one photon means that the other photon must have the opposite spin in the same axis of rotation. This might not seem too unusual but the predominant interpretation of QM, the Copenhagen interpretation, tells us that at the quantum level nothing is real unless you look at it (bounce radiation off it). Until then quantum systems exist only as a wave of probability, called a wave function, that collapses into reality during measurement and then disperses again when you’re done looking at it. Another way to look at this is that the spin of the particle is a superposition (a mixture) of all possible spins (up and down in this case) and when an observation takes place one particular spin becomes real. The probability of each spin depends on its wave function. ( It is this inherent probabilistic nature of QM that bothered Einstein so greatly, causing him to remark “God does not play dice.”) So what we have in this experiment are twin state photons both consisting of spin up and spin down at the same time. At the instant of measurement the wave function for the two photon system collapses, one photon becoming spin up and the other spin down. In order for each to have an opposite spin it appears that an instantaneous communication occurs between them, what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”

This non-local connection is what quantum mystics have latched onto offering it as scientific evidence that everything everywhere is intimately and instantly connected or holistic. Ostensibly this might seem to be a reasonable mechanism for telepathy, assuming that it even exists, but this belief stems from a misunderstanding. Quantum Mechanics does not imply that information can travel instantly, in fact superluminal information transfer has been proven impossible in any theory consistent with relativity or quantum mechanics. (Eberhard and Ross 1989) It has been shown that if a faster than light communication device were setup using non-locality, each isolated observer would only see a random fluctuation of signals, nothing comprehensible could be interpreted. Therefore, even if our brains could operate nonlocally they would not receive any usable information. The violation of locality only occurs within our macrosopic description of the quantum event. So even in the strange world of Quantum Mechanics psychics and mystics cannot find scientific sanctuary.

Does Modern Physics Support the Psychics

The latter part of the twentieth century is seeing a resurgence of mystical thinking that seems out of place and anachronistic in our highly technological society. But science and technology are not completely shunned by these born again mystics. Scientific progress and technological innovation have produced unparalleled and undeniable advances that cannot be ignored even by the most anti-science luddites. Anyone that claims scientific backing for their wild theories garners a degree of respect and authority that nothing else can offer.

This is what quantum mystics have done when they claim that the most successful and well tested theories of the past one hundred years (quantum mechanics) supports their views of the universe. They contend that quantum mechanics (QM) legitimizes their ancient belief that human consciousness determines the content of reality. We are to believe that human thought, not matter and energy is the basic stuff of the universe. Scientific observations, however, do not support this radial claim. There is no compelling evidence or argument to support the belief that the physical universe is only an imaginary byproduct of the mind. This idea results from a misinterpretation of QM, a mistranslation from the mathematical to the philosophical.

Interest in quantum mysticism can be traced back to 1975 with the publication of Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. In it he contended that QM substantiated the traditional teachings of Eastern mystics: that human consciousness is inextricably linked to the universe forming an inseparable whole. The following quote is representative: “Thoughts and emotions create physical processes…the world, including the experience of your body, is completely determined by how you learn to perceive it” (Capra 1975). In the 90’s, Deepak Chopra has written many best selling books with ‘quantum’ in the title, including Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine and Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old. In these books Chopra promulgates his brand of alternative medicine, quantum healing, in which the mind alone can heal all ills and afford us virtual immortality. Chopra echoes Capra in the following: “The physical world, including our bodies, is a response of the observer. We create our bodies as we create the experience of our world”, “Beliefs, thoughts, and emotions create the chemical reactions that uphold life in every cell”(Chopra 1993).

If we believe these authors, twentieth century physics has revealed that the materialist and reductionist world views have been invalidated. Spiritualism and holism, we are to believe, are the new paradigms, exemplified by an incorporeal cosmic mind that is ultimately in control of reality.

How has quantum mechanics lead people to believe that the human mind is the final arbiter of reality? Part of the problem stems from the fact that the mathematics of quantum theory is being translated into words, a so called ontological interpretation. Just because a theory or equation can be expressed mathematically does not automatically imply that it is fully understood. There are many philosophical interpretations of QM, many of which show no difference in their empirical results and since they do not provide their own unique predictions they then can be considered equivalent. For every interpretation of QM that is used to support paranormal claims there is another that is no worse but does not offer ostensible support for paranormal claims.

The most oft abused interpretation of QM, the Copenhagen Interpretation, is also the mostly widely supported among physicists. One major tenet of this interpretation involves the collapse of the quantum wavefunction. This wavefunction is a mathematical description of a quantum system that describes all the possible states that system can be in. It is essentially a collection of probabilities that can be used, for example, to determine the probability that a particle will be found in a certain position. Before the measurement is made QM tells us that the particle is in all possible positions, what is called a superposition of states. When the particle is observed its position is then known with greater accuracy and the wavefunction is said to “collapse” into a definite state, the reality that we observe. Mystics view the wavefunction as a vibration of a universal aether that pervades the cosmos, as real as a sound or water wave. In their view the collapse occurs due to our thoughts or even the thoughts of an omnipresent cosmic consciousness of which we are all apart. In The Conscious Universe Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau unite the concept of the wavefunction and existence. “One could then conclude that Being, in its physical analogue at least, had been ‘revealed’ in the wavefunction…” (Kafatos and Nadeau 1990,124) It is this wavefunction collapse brought about by a human mediated act of measurement or observation that has caused the confusion between quantum theory and consciousness. Since human consciousness ultimately makes the observation it must be intimately connected to the wavefunction and its collapse. This argument dissolves into sophistry, however, by the fact that the quantum wavefunction is not a physical tangible object that can be manipulated by a human mind. The Copenhagen Interpretation makes it clear that it is just a mathematical tool, an abstraction that does whatever the equations tell it to do. Physicist Henry Pierce Stapp of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory echoed fellow physicists with this quote: “In the Copenhagen interpretation the notion of an absolute wavefunction representing the world itself is unequivocally rejected… The probabilities involved are the probabilities of specified responses in the measuring devices under specified conditions”

The Many Worlds Interpretation of QM is yet another interpretation that has been misinterpreted to support paranormal beliefs. This view, developed by John Wheeler and Hugh Everett at Princeton, asserts that there is no wavefunction collapse. If a quantum system has ten different states into which it can change then the universe splits into 10 copies of itself each with a different outcome for that quantum event. For example, when a photon encounters a situation in which it can take one of many different paths, we get a new universe for each and every possible outcome. The universe then is like a bush that is constantly branching into new sub-universes every femtosecond. Once a branch occurs there is no way to go back to a previous branch nor get any information about it. Even this interpretation with its removal of the wavefunction has been used to “prove” that consciousness controls the universe. The human mind in this view is seen as a “channel selector” guiding the branching and sub-branching that an individual universe takes. This Many Worlds view, though intriguing, has not been met with overwhelming support by physicists. Many of them consider it highly implausible that the universe behaves the way it describes and feel that wavefunction collapse is much more reasonable. More damning is the fact that predictions for experimental outcomes do not vary from the orthodox Copenhagen Interpretation. When two theories can explain a phenomenon scientists defer to the principle of economy, or Occam’s Razor, which states that the theory with the fewest assumptions is preferred. A collapsing wavefunction is much simpler than a universe that is forever splitting.

The Quantum Mechanical descriptions of the interactions between observers and observables have led some to conclude that human consciousness is responsible for the content of reality. Some experiments have features that appear to involve the superluminal transfer of information which is interpreted as evidence for an instantaneous holistic universe in which everything is one interconnected whole. (see part one of this article) Although various interpretations have been argued about for many years, the conventional formulation of Quantum Mechanics has been overwhelmingly supported by countless experiments none of which violate a view of the universe that is reductionist, discrete, non-local, and non-holistic with no fundamental role for human consciousness. Despite the fact that psi phenomena have no such experimental backing (or perhaps because of it) true believers have usurped Quantum Mechanics to support their belief system. Victor Stenger said it best: “They use scientific argument not as a spade to probe for unknown answers to deep questions but as a brush to lay down a veneer of respectability over answers they have already determined.” (Prometheus, 1995)


1) Stenger, V. The Unconscious Quantum. Prometheus Books, 1995
2) Eberhard PH, Ross RR. Quantum field theory cannot provide faster-than-light communication. Found. Phys. Lett., 1989
3)Victor J. Stenger, The Unconcious Quantum; Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology (Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1995).
4)Capra, Fritjof, 1975. The Tao of Physics, Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.
5)Chopra, Deepak. 1993. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old. New York: Random House.
6)Kafatos, Menas, and Robert Nadeau. 1990. The Conscious Universe: Part and Whole in Modern Physical Theory. NY: Springer-Verlag.