Quantum Physics and Spirituality — a Defence
This is a response to and critique of a recent article by Paul Austin Murphy entitled ‘Why the Advocates of Spirituality and Idealism Hijack the Words of Quantum Physicists’.
Here is the main thrust of his argument. He says that advocates of spirituality, New Ageism and (the philosophy of) idealism frequently quote famous quantum physicists in support of their worldview, specifically “a handful of passages from German and Austrian physicists spoken (or written) in the first three decades of the 20th century”. These quotes may be “artfully-selected”, “misquoted”, “their words are simply made up”, or “they’re taken completely out of context”. He says that “all this quoting of physicists is usually (or even always) done for one reason and for one reason only: To advance various spiritual and/philosophical beliefs (often about ‘cosmic consciousness’). So spiritual idealists, ‘anti-materialists’ and New Agers often quote and mention various physicists from the early 20th century (as well as beyond) to back up what they already believe anyway” (his italics).
This was interesting because I plead guilty to being an advocate of spirituality and Idealism, and wouldn’t deny having New-Age sympathies, although I don’t use the term myself. In furtherance of such beliefs, I have myself written a long series on Medium on the theme of quantum physics and spirituality, in which I quote various physicists from the early 20th century. I also plead guilty to mentioning favourably David Bohm, Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which Murphy seems to think is some kind of offence.
Before going on to discuss some of his specific points, I’ll outline how my own journey differed from what he claims. He says that “virtually no contemporary New Ager, spiritual idealist, etc. became spiritual as a result of his or her research into quantum mechanics or, say, from reading the technical works (i.e., in papers, etc.) of Erwin Schrödinger. Instead, what nearly always happens is that such people became spiritual for exclusively personal reasons — and only then did they look to these physicists for scientific backup” (his italics).
This may be true of some or perhaps many New Agers, but it certainly wasn’t true of me. More significantly, as I shall discuss below, it doesn’t seem to be true of the relevant scientists.
Murphy’s phrase ‘exclusively personal reasons’ is somewhat vague. What exactly does he mean by that? Is he trying to avoid saying something like profound transformative experiences? It would be surprising if spiritually oriented idealists came up with their beliefs out of nowhere or through a process of logical reasoning. It is far more likely that their beliefs followed on as a consequence of their experiences. That was how my own initiation into spirituality happened, and I certainly did not seek to confirm my experiences by appealing to quantum physics.
My own ‘conversion’ came about during an intense 6-month period of what might be described as a course in Jungian psychology: analysis of the personal unconscious, powerful dreams and their interpretation, an intensive course in parapsychology, mind-blowing synchronicities, and divination (a powerful experience on my first encounter with the I Ching). All this led to a radical change to a spiritual worldview, but there was at that point no suspicion of Idealism or New-Agism. I wasn’t even aware of the terms, apart perhaps from some familiarity with the song ‘Aquarius’ from the musical Hair. These came along later following much reading, study and personal reflection.
It was only later that Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters was recommended to me as a must-read book. At that point I had no knowledge at all of quantum physics and its claimed spiritual implications. I found the book fascinating, which led me to read some of the other well-known texts on that theme. So I would say that my study of quantum physics, or rather the spiritual statements made by quantum physicists, followed on from my conversion to spirituality and deepened my understanding. I certainly was not seeking to reinforce my prior spiritual beliefs by appealing to quantum physics, since they were based on basic Jungian psychology, not idealism or New-Agism.
Therefore, when Murphy says that “most New Agers, etc. have no interest in science (specifically quantum mechanics) other than as a means to advance their spiritual and philosophical beliefs, beliefs they held long before encountering the work of these physicists”, I can say in all honesty that this wasn’t true of me. I came to quantum physics from the opposite direction. I assume therefore that this may well be true of others.
I’ll next discuss some of Murphy’s specific points.
He says that all this quoting of quantum physicists amounts to an appeal to authority (which is a philosophical fallacy), thus: “If Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Planck, Bohm, etc. believed and said these things, then they simply must be true”. He then says that “although a tiny minority of physicists did say these things… these scientists rarely went into much — or sometimes any — detail. More importantly, they rarely made an effort to tie their non-scientific words to their actual physical (i.e., technical) theories”.
This is hardly surprising if they were writing for the general public. What would be the point of filling their books with complex physics and equations if no one was going to understand this? It is obvious that they were explaining the conclusions and beliefs to which their scientific explorations had led them. Murphy seems to be suggesting that that their ‘non-scientific’ words should be dissociated from their technical theories, as if they have nothing to do with each other, as if they did not arrive at their philosophical views as a consequence of their science. I don’t think that this means the statements must be true; it’s merely interesting to note that many physicists (is it really “a tiny minority”?) have come to similar conclusions, based upon their scientific work.
On that theme Murphy later quotes David Bohm, complaining that “it (the quote) has very little to do with his actual physics. That is, it has little to do with Bohm’s technical physics as expressed in his papers. Sure, it may have something to do, on the other hand, with his interpretations of his own work”. What, we may ask, is wrong with scientists interpreting their own work? What is the point of doing scientific work at all, if one is not going to draw conclusions from it? Perhaps the interpretations are a reasonable deduction from the physics.
Also on that theme, Murphy is keen to distance quantum physics from any claimed parallels with Eastern religions (the best-known example of which is Capra’s book). He says that the physicists “rarely made an effort to tie their non-scientific words to their actual physical (i.e., technical) theories. Indeed Erwin Schrödinger, for one, went out of his way to disconnect his interest in (loosely called) ‘eastern philosophy from his actual technical physics”. (Schrödinger is well known for his Vedantist views.) That may well be true, but another physicist who took the opposite view is Niels Bohr who said: “The development of atomic physics forces us to an attitude toward the problem of explanation recalling ancient wisdom”, by which he presumably meant Eastern religions. (I regret that I currently cannot find the source of that quote, although I’ve definitely read it in a published book. I hope that it is genuine.)
It’s also worth noting that Werner Heisenberg, arguably the most important of the early quantum physicists, went through the manuscript of The Tao of Physics with Capra chapter by chapter, and therefore obviously endorsed it, unless anyone has evidence that Capra was lying. He says: “It was Heisenberg’s personal support and inspiration that carried me through those difficult years, when I went out on a limb to develop and present a radically new idea” ¹.
If Bohr meant something other than Eastern religions, however, it was probably Plato’s allegory of the cave, which was also an important reference point for early quantum physicists. It’s important to note that, unlike the New-Agers that Murphy criticises, they were not seeking to prove an already held spiritual or idealist understanding of the universe. They were merely doing what scientists normally do, in this case attempting to understand the nature of the atom — searching for the ultimate building blocks of matter. To their surprise, however, they found that such basic building blocks do not exist; at least that is what they said. This is what led them to idealist statements, specifically along the lines of Plato.
Thus, following the first quantum breakthroughs, Sir James Jeans said: “The universe is looking less like a great machine, and more like a great thought”. This was in his book The Mysterious Universe, where he actually quotes Plato’s allegory of the cave as the epigram.
Werner Heisenberg, like Jeans, specifically mentioned Plato: “I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favour of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language”.
Sir Arthur Eddington said in The Nature of the Physical World: “The external world of physics has thus become a world of shadows. In removing our illusions we have removed the substance, for indeed we have seen that substance is one of the greatest of our illusions”. I suggest that he also was thinking of Plato’s allegory in his use of the word ‘shadow’ here, and his liberal use of the words ‘shadow’ and ‘shadowy’ elsewhere.
Since shadows are non-material, and since according to these physicists there is no actual substance and matter is an illusion, these would appear to be decisive statements in favour of Idealism, in agreement with the ancient Eastern religions that mind is the primary reality. If the universe appears to be a great thought, who or what is thinking that thought? (There is a further even more eye-opening quote along these lines by Max Planck which I’ll reserve for later.) I do not believe that I have artfully selected, misquoted, made up these quotes, or taken them “completely out of context”. If I have, then I hope Murphy will let me know.
Murphy then spends some time criticising writer on Medium Deepak Chopra and the idealist scientist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup. I think it’s fair to say that he finds the latter especially irritating, for by my count he has written six Medium articles criticising him. Is it fair to say that Kastrup has got under his skin, or that he has something of a bee in his bonnet about him? From a spiritual/idealist perspective I find Kastrup very interesting, and have written about him here.
Murphy finishes by discussing some specific quotes from quantum physicists which he says are frequently used by New-Agers. I’ll comment on just one. He shows a quote attributed to Max Planck, which he says may be fake or doctored, but that in any case “there is nothing spiritual or even idealist about Max Planck’s words”. This leads him to say that spiritual idealism is “a position which Max Planck himself almost certainly didn’t uphold”.
It seems to me, however, that the following Planck quote is definitely idealist: “There is no matter as such! All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter”.
According to this website Planck said this at a speech in Florence in 1944 entitled Das Wesen der Materie [The Nature of Matter] (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va, Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797). This is presumably neither fake nor doctored nor taken out of context, unless Murphy has any evidence to the contrary. If it is genuine, however, is he still going to argue that Planck was not an idealist? If, however, Planck was an idealist, he was not alone among quantum physicists.
In conclusion, I am happy to admit that I, like the idealists that Murphy criticises, have no understanding of the technicalities or equations of quantum physics. I am, however, very happy to take seriously the statements of Heisenberg, Bohr, Planck, Bohm, Jeans, Eddington, and others not mentioned here (for example Wolfgang Pauli, Fred Alan Wolf, Danah Zohar). That doesn’t mean that such statements are necessarily true of course, but there is a certain consistency there.
Paul Austin Murphy has responded to this critique here.
I’ve made my response to that here.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.
- Third edition, Flamingo, 1992, p360