Graham Pemberton
6 min readDec 10, 2022

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Quantum Physics and Spirituality — Further Thoughts

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Image by Avi Chomotovski from Pixabay

Medium writer and philosopher Paul Austin Murphy seems to be on something of a campaign/crusade against the idea that quantum physics leads to a spiritual worldview, and more specifically to the philosophy of idealism. This led to an exchange of views between us, the starting point of which was his article entitled ‘Why the Advocates of Spirituality and Idealism Hijack the Words of Quantum Physicists’. Since I could be considered to be one of those advocates, having written extensively on that subject, I wrote a response. This prompted an exchange of views, and a further article by me. (It is not necessary to have read any of that before reading what follows here.)

He has said that, since neither of us is willing to concede any ground in the discussion, he won’t respond to anything further from me on this subject. What follows is probably therefore just for other interested readers.

I did think that this was going to be the final article in this mini-series, a discussion of another scientist with similar views, hopefully to further reinforce my position. Since then, however, Murphy has published two more articles, one critical of Fritjof Capra for allegedly using his interpretation of quantum physics to advance his political views, and another discussing Bishop Berkeley — arguably the most well-known idealist in the history of philosophy. I’ve also come across an earlier article, where he disputes the suggestion that Werner Heisenberg was an idealist.

I think it’s fair to say therefore that this issue is very important to him. Are his arguments convincing, however? Here, instead of my original plan, I’ll look at the Capra article.

His title ‘Fritjof Capra’s Political Reasons for Using Quantum Physics to Bring About an “Eastern Liberation” ’ is stated in bold headlines. We are clearly invited to think that any such thinking is erroneous. Murphy has also frequently said that spiritual people use particular interpretations of quantum mechanics to back up what they already believe. As an example, in this article, as well as focussing upon Capra, he brings in another physicist Danah Zohar, thus saying: “So (again, just like Danah Zohar), quantum physics became a tool which Capra used to advance his spiritual-political worldview”.

Even though he is convinced of this, Murphy offers very little evidence, at least in this article, to back up what he says. I haven’t studied any biographical material about Capra, but in simple terms his life seems to have followed the following course. He began as a physicist, therefore studied quantum physics and its implications for science, noting that it revolutionised the previous worldview of classical physics. At some point he noted the parallels and correspondences between this (or as Murphy would say, certain interpretations of this) and Eastern religions. This led him to believe that science was beginning to endorse these spiritual ideas, and he therefore adopted a more spiritual worldview. This in turn led him to formulate his political and environmental views. (Why wouldn’t a deeply spiritual person show great concern for the planet?) Where therefore is the evidence that Capra formulated his political ideas before becoming a physicist, as Murphy claims, and that he used quantum physics to advance them.

The same can be said about Danah Zohar. I’ve written about her book The Quantum Self in great detail — a total of nine articles — in my earlier series. She went on to write about social and political issues, for example in The Quantum Society. Like Capra, however, as far as I can tell she began as a physicist, and her spiritual and social/political views were developed from her understanding of quantum physics.

If any readers know of evidence that Capra and Zohar held their spiritual and political views in advance of being physicists, I would be grateful for the information. Even if there is such evidence, what would actually be wrong with this? If the findings of science seem to back up what you already believe, why wouldn’t you cite this as evidence? Others are then free to disagree with your conclusions.

Murphy is obviously correct to distinguish between scientific experimental results, and how scientists may variously interpret these: “Most interpreters agree on the quantum theory, mathematical formalism/s, the mathematics generally, the experiments, the predictive results, etc. However, they interpret what metaphysically underlies all that in different — sometimes very different — ways”. I suggest therefore that his time would be better spent evaluating the different interpretations, thus explaining why the spiritual physicists he so dislikes are wrong to interpret quantum physics in the way they do, rather than engage in these personal attacks.

He further says that, while it may be understandable that spiritual people cite quantum mechanics in support of their views, “their drawing political conclusions from quantum mechanics isn’t really obvious at all”. Here he is again ignoring the more obvious conclusion that Capra’s political ideas developed out of his spiritual worldview, which in turn was inspired by quantum physics. Murphy chooses to ignore the missing link of spirituality in this thread.

He says that New-Agers and spiritual people tend to be ‘anti-science’, but are “nonetheless happy with quantum science”, presumably trying to suggest that this is some kind of fallacy or contradiction. However, he almost immediately answers his own question by saying that the science which is criticised is ‘Newtonian’, thus classical physics, associated with determinism and materialism, what is sometimes called the Old Paradigm. This was the accepted worldview before the quantum revolution which is part of an emerging post-Newtonian New Paradigm. There is therefore no contradiction in being against antiquated science, while being happy with the latest developments.

Murphy complains that Capra “has little to say about quantum physics (at least in his best-selling books) as it can be presented completely divorced from all the political, spiritual, ecological, sociological, psychological, historical, etc. interpretations which he indulges in”. He is more interested in “his own far more important political and spiritual interpretations”. This is hardly surprising. Since Capra and other physicists like him are writing for the general public, what would be the point of filling books with complicated physics and equations? Their time is much better spent explaining the interpretations and the worldview that the science has led them to.

On this question of the science, it’s worth noting that in a previous article, as part of my exchange with Murphy, I specifically discussed some of the established science from quantum physics, including the double-slit experiment and the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. These scientific results have led certain physicists to spiritual interpretations, for example that sub-atomic particles appear to be conscious, which suggests panpsychism, or perhaps even idealism. In his response, however, Murphy made no comment about any of this science, no attempt to offer any alternative non-spiritual interpretation of these phenomena, thus avoiding the most important issues in this debate.

Murphy also criticises Capra for promoting “his own worldview (or political religion)” as the answer or solution to the world’s problems. In simple terms, he is complaining that he is evangelising or proselytising. Again, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what almost everyone is doing, whether someone of a religious persuasion, an atheist, a politician, a philosopher, or anyone at all who writes on such themes? No one is forced to agree with Capra; he is merely arguing his case. Isn’t Murphy himself trying in his writings to persuade others of his own ideas and worldview?

Following the main article, Murphy adds a bizarre note, attempting an amateur psychoanalysis of Capra, suggesting that he may be “rebelling against the West as a teenager fiercely rebels against his father”, and stereotyping him as someone belonging to “a long tradition among largely upper-middle-class Western men”, with probably “a very strong element of upper-middle-class ‘guilt’ ”.

Is he really so desperate that he has to indulge in what amounts to an ad hominem attack, rather than explain in detail why Capra and Zohar are wrong to think what they do, how they misinterpret quantum physics in support of their spiritual worldview? That would be a far more interesting read. How would he feel if someone started to psychoanalyse his article, suggesting that he is perhaps consumed with envy about someone with whom he disagrees being such a best-selling author with global influence, while he remains a relatively obscure philosopher?

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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.

Paul Austin Murphy

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Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com