quantum weirdness, skepticism

The Observer Effect: A Rejoinder to Skeptics

To rest and unfocus my mind, I found myself earlier today idly reading this article, linked in a newsletter I get, which asserted that “astrology isn’t fake—it’s just been ruined by modern psychology.”

I found it a failed article. The author claimed that new translations of fragmentary manuscripts revealed hitherto unknown techniques and insights that enabled ancient astrologers to understand the correlation of cosmic motions (only apparent cosmic motions, such as retrogrades, at that) with grand human events. But she revealed nothing of what those techniques and insights might be, or what made them any better  than the chart reading astrologers already do. She also seemed to privilege the public life over the personal, to be saying (not in so many words) that predicting the assassination of Caesar was somehow nobler and “realer” than grubbing for guidance in the backyard of your own psyche. Finally, having dissed the use of astrology in the service of personal psychology, she came back around to it and admitted it was one of the reasons astrology was valuable. Huh??

The article went nowhere, and it left me saying, “If that’s the best you can do, then, yes—astrology IS fake.”

Astrology, which doesn’t interest me much, is a systematic (psst—that’s why it doesn’t interest me) subset of the “significant coincidence” mindset that skeptics are always at great pains to mock and debunk. They are particularly hard on birthday coincidences, which I’ve written about—the uncanny thrill of meaningfulness we feel when someone important to us turns out to share our birthday., or some other significant date in our lives. The skeptics find it laughable and contemptible the way new age–leaning types take this as emotional proof that the universe cares about them and has lovingly lit their backyard walkway with its mighty stars.

Skeptics’ main weapons for destroying this puerile wishful thinking (which they seem to find a threat, the way bullies are enraged by vulnerability) are based on 1) statistics: they show that sharing a birthday with someone or other in a random roomful of strangers is so common as to be almost inevitable, and 2) confirmation bias theory: you encounter at least as many people who share your birthday who mean nothing to you, but like a scientist deep-sixing negative experimental results, you just don’t notice them.

There’s one trouble with these arguments, and that is what quantum physics calls the observer effect. The observer, the act of observing, detectably displaces the observed. You can’t catch reality not being looked at, because you’re always peeking, however indirectly. The most august and monumental instruments, standing cold and alone in their sterile fastnesses in the night, humming dispassionately, are projections of the “vile jellies” of our eyes; they are cartoon crab eyestalks goggling at the galaxies or the gluons. And seeing participates in the ordering of the seen.

So maybe there really is meaning in the universe—because we see it there.

But, but, but—sputters the skeptic—it isn’t really there! It’s a fantasy! The reality behind the colorful backdrops we hang to hide it is indifferent, unknowable, colorless, tasteless, formless, qualityless, a droning Brownian vibration like the snow and static on a 1950s TV screen after hours.

And I say that, too, is a fantasy. And a faith. A heroic faith in ourselves, that cast away in the subatomic pablum of a senseless universe, with sufficient unsentimentality we can harness its blind powers for our own, and bestride the cosmos, and conquer death.

We’ll see about that.

There IS no “really.” Every attempt we make to peel away another layer of contingent appearances, to strip ourselves out of the equation, we do with and from within a human mind. In a perishable human body.

There’s no escape.

Whatever we imagine, including an inviolate cosmos of physical and mathematical laws unsmeared by the toddler’s applesauce of human imagination, we see . . . through a human imagination. Pure abstract rationality is a highly trained and specialized form of human imagination, a clear plastic lens inserted to improve on nature’s more flexible but occluded one. Does it discover truths, proven as such by their predicted and stupendous success at manipulating matter and energy, our technology that Arthur C. Clarke called “indistinguishable from magic“? Oh my, yes! And of course these discoveries are driven by an ulterior motive: to become more powerful, less vulnerable, to build ourselves a safe and stylish home in this dangerous place—and also, if this is our faith, to feel superior to other primates whose gods are less potent. So sue us, we’re alive.

And so-called superstitions about synchronicity and meaning are also attempts to make ourselves more significant, safer, and more at home here. They don’t have the power to discover and create structures in the material world, but they do have power to discover and create structures in the emotional world, laws of wisdom based on centuries of shrewd observation, by which we can navigate with more confidence and orientation through our lives, and accept the things, like mortality, we cannot change (yet—I’ll toss the ardently believing “skeptics” that bone).

If the way that something is proven “true” and “real” is that it works, there are structures in thought and feeling that work and don’t work, too. Addiction is based on an untruth: it doesn’t work. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous manifestly do work. The “Logotherapy” of Viktor Frankl, finding motivation through finding meaning, works. The detached equanimity of Stoicism works. The skeptics say that synchronicity isn’t “true” even if it warms our “hearts” as surely as infrared radiation warms our skins—both essential for survival. The counterskeptics might rejoinder that, you know . . . hubris doesn’t work.

Just sayin’.


quantum weirdness, the universe

Is “Materialism” a Misnomer?

Copyediting a forthcoming book on quantum physics (Spooky Action at a Distance by the excellent science writer George Musser, forthcoming from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I understand for the first time that what critics of “scientism” decry as “materialism”—the belief that every real phenomenon in the universe has a material basis—is actually a belief in locality. Locality means that bodies or their intermediaries must come into contact—collide—to affect each other. Nonlocality allows for the possibility that nature includes fields and forces by which bodies can exert influence at a spatial distance, without smacking into each other. Such phenomena range from gravity and magnetism to quantum entanglement. Whether those seemingly different kinds of effects-at-a-distance are in fact different or have the same ultimate basis is (I think?) the question at the heart of the quest for a “theory of everything.”

An example from developmental biology: are differentiating embryos organized into their proper forms only by the orchestrated expression of growth factors and other such regulatory and signaling molecules that work their way physically from cell to cell? In other words, is form determined only by contact “on the ground,” by the timed release of molecules that lock onto receptors and trigger cascades and gradients of other molecules? Or is development guided by “morphogenetic fields,” in the term of the renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake, which pattern and channel those movements of cells and molecules the way a magnetic field patterns iron filings?

Local vs. nonlocal is a huge and much truer difference than “material” vs. “immaterial” (especially now that we know matter and energy are interconvertible), because it does not imply a potential division or distinction between nature (material) and a supernatural (immaterial). It is a question about the nature of nature, about where information lives and what it consists of—a question that can be asked with equal pertinence about the form of organisms and the form of ideas. We accept that gravity and magnetism are facts of nature even though they don’t operate by direct contact or through an intermediary medium, and we can measure but not explain them; we really don’t know what they are. Musser points out that science was born in the seventeenth century of two parents, mechanics and magic, each of which admits something observable about nature and corrects the other’s inadequacies and flaws.

It turns out that a voluminous amount has been written about these evolving ideas of force and space at the intersection of physics, the history of science, and philosophy. Those quoted in this book include a brilliant theoretical physicist named Fotini Markopoulou (yes, she’s a girl) who suspects that space may not be real. I’m not going to understand any of this, yet anyone’s intuition can play with it, in ways that could equally well be outrageously wrong or uncannily on track. For example, I’ve been wondering whether quantum entanglement is anything like gravitational lensing—whether a pair of entangled photons are really two images of the same photon, which would indeed make them depend on the position of the observer. And this in turn somehow seems related to the question, which may be a serious question: Is the universe a hologram?