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Where physics meets faith

By Robert C. Cowen / October 21, 2004



For those seeking spirituality in physics, there's wisdom in an old song lyric: "You can't get to heaven on roller skates 'cause you'll roll right past those pearly gates." It also puts into perspective the buzz surrounding "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" - a recent film that links spirituality and quantum physics.

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Neither Newtonian mechanics nor quantum physics is on a glide path to spiritual enlightenment. They take a road that leads to knowledge of the natural world. Nevertheless, man is often tempted to stretch that knowledge beyond its legitimate domain.

Even great scientists fall prey to this temptation. Newton was into magical thinking. Kepler saw God's hand in the celestial order of the planets. While Kepler's laws remain a guide to planetary orbits and Newton's mechanics still find myriad uses, the mysticism of those men is forgotten.

Quantum theory, with its emphasis on the role of the observer, can be especially misleading. According to the theory, an entity - say, an electron - exists as a virtual set of all its possible states until an observer tries to pin it down. The term "state" means the set of properties that characterize the entity, such as its location or the direction of its spin.

The act of observation forces the electron to manifest a specific value for each such property from among all the possible values that property can assume. Quantum theory does not predict what that value will be. It does predict very precisely the probability with which any one of the possible values will be observed if the experiment is repeated many times.

This sometimes gives rise to the statement that physics reduces matter to a "field of probabilities." That's meaningless. Probability is a mathematical, not a physical, concept. Quantum theory uses that math to predict events. It does not imply that matter is physically just a bunch of probabilities.

Another common misperception is the role of the observer in quantum mechanics. A more useful term is "interaction." It's the interaction of the electron with its external environment - the experimenter's probe, for example - that is involved. Quantum physics happens whether or not there is an observer. After all, there's no conscious observer to mediate hydrogen fusion inside the Sun.

Mystical thinkers overlook this point. They stretch the theory to claim that it implies that human thought can manipulate matter and determine physical reality. That's the core message of "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" This delusion reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of a difference between natural science and spirituality.

Science is a faith-based authoritarian effort to understand the natural world. It's based on faith that the world is understandable and assumes that knowledge gained from our Earth-bound perspective has universal validity. This faith is disciplined by the authority of verifiable experimental and observational facts and by moments of discovery. Spiritual faith is introspective. It is validated by individual experience and inspired by epiphanies. Trying to co-opt physics to support such faith loses whatever truth physics has to offer.

"Bleep" codirector Mark Vicente admitted as much in a radio interview when he said the film is not about truth, it's about philosophy. He gave the game away when he added, "I don't know what science is."

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