Saturday, 27 June 2015

Blue Sky Nonsense: reviewing “Blue Sky God: The Evolution of Science and Christianity” pt. 1: Quantum Reality and God as Consciousness

Blue Sky God: The Evolution of Science and Christianity by Don MacGregor (book sources)

(Headings in italics are mine, rather than referring to the book.)

Quantum Science and Consciousness, and The Primacy of Consciousness

MacGregor jumps right in the deep end by claiming—before even getting more than 2 pages in—that a “new paradigm suggests that the prime mover in the universe is not matter, but consciousness”. He identifies quantum measurements—i.e. ‘wavefunction collapse’—as necessarily involving conscious minds and presents this as if it were the established and only interpretation of QM that exists. He quotes Max Planck (“This mind is the matrix of all matter”) but via a secondary source that seems to misplace the occasion of the statement. Otherwise the only scientist referenced is Goswami.

This position—sometimes called the ‘consciousness-causes-collapse’ interpretation of quantum mechanism—is strictly a fringe one; even Eugene Wigner, who devised the “Wigner's Friend” thought experiment, abandoned the idea that consciousness played any role at all. Schlosshauer (2013), reporting on a survey of 33 participants at a conference on quantum foundations, found that only 6% (i.e. 2 people) supported any kind of distinguished physical role for an observer at all; unfortunately, there is no way to tell whether these people regarded consciousness as significant, therefore this has to be taken as an upper bound. (The correlations given in the report also imply that one of these respondents has “switched interpretations several times”.)

One probable reason why consciousness-causes-collapse is not a popular interpretation is that it is in principle experimentally testable; while this has not been explicitly done, there is a good argument that even the necessary preconditions to do so have been tested and found false; see Yu and Nikolić (2011).

There are two big problems with trying to use consciousness as the basis of an interpretation of quantum mechanics. One of them is parsimony; consciousness appears to be a complex emergent phenomenon of physical systems, and trying to treat it as some sort of primitive substance would make it impossible to describe the laws of physics in any compact way. The other is the issue of probability: quantum ‘collapse’ (in interpretations that have collapse) follows the Born rule for probabilities, and there's no reason why consciousness would cause this. In particular, this implies that conscious choice cannot reasonably select an outcome, since there would be no expectation that choice would follow the correct probability rule (and any deviation from that would be detectable).

Quantum Erasure

To explain why this is, we need to consider one of the stranger phenomena of quantum mechanics: quantum erasure. Put simply, this is the idea that if you do a measurement that would affect some quantum phenomenon, but then arrange to later ‘undo’ the measurement by arranging the apparatus such that there is no way even in principle to know what the measurement was, then the effect is as if no measurement was performed; but (and this part is important) if the measurement is possible in principle but simply not performed in practice, then it affects the result in the same way that making the measurement does.

This seems to rule out any possible role for consciousness; because if what matters is whether the measurement could be made, rather than whether it is made, then whether or not the result of the measurement becomes known to a conscious observer becomes irrelevant.


The Primacy of Consciousness, and Ground of Being and Consciousness

MacGregor's claim that consciousness is central to QM leads him to the obvious question: how did things work before human—or any other—consciousness evolved? His answer of course is to place God as a universal consciousness, responsible for observing everything.

This of course makes the whole argument fall into incoherence. If there is a ‘universal observer’ observing everything everywhere, then clearly it is impossible for any quantum state anywhere not to immediately collapse. The entire motivation for proposing consciousness-causes-collapse interpretations is to delineate the point at which a ‘measurement’ occurs which converts a quantum wavefunction into a classical result—but if a universal observer could collapse the wavefunction independently of any human observer, why would we observe the specific phenomena that we do?

Or put another way: to the human experimenter doing a double-slit interference experiment, the result depends completely on whether or not the experimental apparatus is set up to measure which slit the photon goes through; but what grounds do we have to say that universal-consciousness-God is not able to make this measurement regardless? If there's some physical rule binding even on God that forces some things to go unobserved, then it becomes unnecessary to postulate his existence at all.

MacGregor goes further. In order to resolve the question of possible conflicts between separate consciousnesses, he takes the view that the ‘universal’ ground-of-being/God consciousness is the only consciousness; that individual consciousnesses bear the same relationship to the universal consciousness that a glass of water does to the Earth's hydrosphere. Left unaddressed is the fact that the separation of an individual consciousness from the universal one re-introduces all of the contradictions that the argument was introduced to solve.

Argument from Absent Authority

At this point I should say that many of the claims I attribute above to MacGregor are expressed in the book in the form “physicists say...” or “... has emerged in scientific thought ...” or similar weasel phrases without citations. Where specific sources are named, they are very few and usually misrepresented. The actual sources given for the scientific claims of the chapter are:

  • Several quotations from Amit Goswali (physicist of minimal scientific significance turned “quantum activist”, featured heavily in What The Bleep...)
  • A quotation from ‘systems theorist’ Ervin László, described as a “Nobel prize nominee” without mention of the fact that (a) this means nothing and (b) it was the Peace prize he was supposedly nominated for
  • Quotations from journalist and anti-vaccine campaigner Lynne McTaggart, none of whose bios that I found mention any relevant scientific training
  • Max Planck's 1944 quotation mentioned above, misdated
  • ... and finally, the film What The Bleep Do We Know!? itself.

What this boils down to is that nothing in this chapter regarding any scientific aspect is anything more than blind regurgitation of the pseudoscience peddled by the Bleepers and their fellow-travellers in the lunatic fringe. One would (or should) expect the kind of language used by MacGregor to make his scientific claims to be backed up by more than this.

History of Quantum Mysticism

It's not surprising that some (by no means all) of the early pioneers of quantum theory had a tendency to slip into mysticism; it was a common feature of the time. The influence of Eastern religions was well established in the West by the early 1900s; psychology was in its barest infancy and dominated by the pseudoscience of Freud and Jung (Wolfgang Pauli consulted with Jung after a breakdown). However, as far as I can tell the phenomenon of quantum mysticism did not really take off until Fritjof Capra's popular book The Tao of Physics in 1975, which attempted to unify a (now long-discredited) branch of quantum theory with the usual Eastern mystical ideas. Since that time the appropriation of quantum theory by cranks and scam-artists of all stripes has become increasingly common.

What The Bleep Is This Nonsense??

The film usually known as What The Bleep Do We Know!? (the actual published title is an offense to orthography) was produced by members of an otherwise largely obscure cult called “Ramtha's School of Enlightenment”. This was founded by one J. Z. Knight, who has made millions on the psychic circuit claiming to ‘channel’ a 35,000-year-old being called Ramtha who supposedly conquered Atlantis. Knight appears in the film (as Ramtha) along with Goswami and a few other scientists or former scientists deeply engaged in new-age movements (e.g. John Hagelin, US Director of the Transcendental Meditation movement and three-time presidential candidate for the Natural Law Party). The one mainstream scholar who appears (David Albert, a physicist and philosopher of physics) was deceptively edited to misrepresent his views.

So what does the science really say?

What The Bleep... was widely condemned by scientists (and science writers who consulted actual scientists) for its misrepresentations of quantum theory. (Naturally this criticism is ignored by believers in the film's message.) More generally, many physicists who write popular books about quantum theory find it necessary to warn about the misuses; an example is Chad Orzel's How To Teach [Quantum] Physics To Your Dog which devotes an entire chapter (of only 10) to the topic. The late Victor Stenger wrote entire books—Quantum Gods and The Unconscious Quantum—attempting to counter what Murray Gell-Mann termed “quantum flapdoodle”.

But physicists are somewhat hampered by the fact that they don't have a single consistent alternative story to tell. Almost all of them agree that consciousness is nothing to do with it; but in between shut-up-and-calculate, the Copenhagen interpretation, many-worlds, quantum information theory, and other interpretations, there is no single ‘standard’ way to describe quantum phenomena in terms which would be accessible to the layman.

Ultimately, though, a theory must stand or fall based on results; and we'll pick up on this issue later.

The Rest

The rest of the chapter (Consciousness and Christianity, Consciousness and the Holy Trinity, Evolving Christianity, and Co-Creators) is almost all theology which I won't address; it all fails anyway if the scientific claims aren't valid. But there are some specific scientific points raised which need to be addressed:

Quantum effects at larger scales

Quantum effects have been demonstrated in molecules of nontrivial size, such as 60-carbon fullerenes (giving a de Broglie wavelength of about 3 picometres at the experimental velocity used). MacGregor doesn't mention it, but as an SN article pointed out a while back, they have also been demonstrated on millimetre-scale objects at room temperature—but only for a few picoseconds. None of this is surprising to physicists, who are quite capable of calculating wavelengths and decoherence times; they are impressive feats of experimental design, nothing more.

The Control Group Is Out Of Control

MacGregor's first outright reference to parapsychology experiments to justify his position comes in the form of random-number experiments performed by Jahn and Dunne, and others, and reviewed by Radin and Nelson (1989). These are experiments where the subject sits in front of a computer or other device equipped with a hardware random number generator and attempts to influence the outcome by thinking about it.

However MacGregor's commits the unforgivable sin here in citing these experiments only to Lynne McTaggart (who mentions them in the introduction of The Intentionality Experiment) without mentioning McTaggart's sources or any mention of who the experimenter was, thus requiring me to follow the breadcrumbs to even find out the basic details of what experiment is being referred to, much less the original papers.

Inevitably, there are duelling meta-analyses for this type of experiment with one side pointing out that the effect size varies by study size (a classic indicator of publication bias or other misbehaviour) and similar flaws, and the other side criticizing the methodology of the critical meta-analyses, and so on. Rather than try and get into that debate, I'll point out a different issue entirely: the effect size for these experiments is very small (and of course neither MacGregor nor McTaggert mention this). The small effect size leads to two conclusions: firstly, even if the statistical significance is high, we can't be at all sure that this is a real effect rather than one of the many sources of systematic bias; and secondly, the existence of a very small effect in no way justifies the extremely grandiose claims for the power of such parapsychological effects claimed by MacGregor and McTaggert (though not by the actual researchers of course).

For more on the kinds of issues raised by these sorts of studies, Scott Alexander's excellent article The Control Group Is Out Of Control is very much worth reading.

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