In a secular culture like ours, religion and spirituality are a much harder sell than they once were. Science has continually poked holes in much of religious thinking, and more people self identify as Atheists than ever before.
It makes sense, then, that some spiritual leaders are leaning on science to justify their spiritual lines of thinking. The field that bears the most of that weight? Quantum mechanics.
Historically speaking, quantum mechanics is a relatively new field of study. Since its start at the turn of the 20th century, the field has undergone a variety of changes and advancements which have led it to its place at the forefront of modern physics.
At its most basic, quantum mechanics attempts to explain the way the world works on the super-duper micro (or, quantum) level.
The spiritual leaders who utilize elements of quantum mechanics to validate concepts in spirituality often begin with the idea of wave-particle duality. This idea asserts that almost all physical entities sometimes act like particles and sometimes act like waves. Where classical physics stated that things were black and white (matter was either a particle or a wave), experiments continually showed that matter and fields exhibited duality. Take for example, light. Through a long series of scientific endeavors which I am massively oversimplifying, physicists discovered that light is made of tiny little particle packages (known as photons), which behave on a quantum level, like waves. Where a particle is a discrete packet of energy in one place, a wave is a continuous transfer of energy. Tiny bits of matter like these are referred to as quanta, which is where the field gets it’s name!
The wave-particle duality concept was discovered and is best shown through the famous double-slit experiment.
Scientists were at a loss. How could light be a wave and a particle? This whole idea contradicts classical physics. Of this duality, Albert Einstein emphasized that “We have two contradictory pictures of reality [referring to the laws of waves and particles]; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”
When hippies say that they’re feeling good vibes, they probably are. Everything is a wave, but everything is also a particle. It’s fine.
The wave-particle duality is coupled with an idea known as quantum superposition. Since these very small bits of matter can now be described as both waves and particles, the way we measure them changes. Quantum superposition is, at it’s most basic, the idea that matter (for example: an electron) can be in more than one place at one time.
Think of it in the context of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment. Picture a cat put in a box with a chemical that will kill the cat when it is released. If we do not know if the chemical has been released, the cat could be dead or alive. In that moment, the cat is both alive and dead until we observe it to find out. Same thing goes for things on the quantum level. If you want to learn more about a specific electron, for example, you might want to measure its momentum or its precise location. Because of wave-particle duality, at the quantum level matter does not always have both. When the matter is behaving as a particle, it has a precise location. When it is behaving as a wave, it has momentum. For this reason, physicists would define a wave function for that electron. The wave function is a probabilistic system which allows physicists to mathematically determine the simultaneous probability of both the electron’s location and momentum. These measurements are not certain, because quantum matter doesn’t always behave in a solidly predictable manner.
If you interpret these concepts loosely, you can see where spirituality might come in. If matter can be in more than one location at once based on a probabilistic visualization of the places that it *might* be, the jump to the idea that things can be in two places at once makes a little more sense.
Quantum mechanics, in this way, can be spun to reflect many larger philosophical or “woo-woo” concepts. Concepts like astral projection suddenly feel a little more justified when we learn that particles on the micro level behave differently than particles on the larger, observable scale. The leap being made is that If science is doing weird things on the microscopic level, then magic could definitely be happening there. This is less a scientific hypothesis and more a vague application of the concepts to mystical ideology. When used by spiritual leaders, it is often an exploitation of the average person’s very minimal understanding of the science itself.
Hark! A gray area!
Many associate the indeterministic nature of quantum mechanics with the return of free will to science. Think of it this way. If the rules of classical physics were the only ones we played by, with a strong enough computer you could map out every atom and particle in the world (and measure their movements, interactions, and locations). You could also theoretically use that information to predict their future movements. If we could predict the future movements of atoms, couldn’t we, with enough data, predict the future itself? If matter is predictable, and therefore in a sense pre-determined, our our choices pre-programmed? This whole idea completely negates the concept of free will. And you know what religion loves? Free will. Conscious choices that lead you to your salvation or Eden or nirvana.
To paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, the claims of science rely on evidence and the claims of religion rely on belief and faith. While it’s true that the divide between religion and science didn’t truly emerge until the 1950s (see C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures), there are many incompatibilities between the schools of thought – that is, until now.
The most popular adaptation of quantum mechanics into spirituality is a through a philosophy called quantum mysticism (which RationalWiki lovingly refers to as quantum woo). Where quantum mechanics is an empirically proven concept, quantum mysticism offers a subjective interpretation of the field’s findings. The idea was made popular through a series of books released in the 1970s: Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters. These books popularized connections between Asian religious thought and modern science, pioneering the quantum mysticism line of thinking.
Jess Lively, in an episode of her podcast The Lively Show, discusses the difference between pre-rational, rational, and trans-rational thought when it comes to the alignment of the “woo-woo” with quantum theory. To summarize, pre-rational thought has origins predating modern science, things like early mythology and creationism. Rational thought is the generally accepted scientific consensus of the way the world works. Trans-rational thought uses and accepts rational thought (i.e. science), but believes that there are some undefined philosophical concepts still worth considering.
For this reason, quantum mysticism is especially appealing to trans-rational thinkers. In an increasingly chaotic society, many have turned to concepts like astrology, holistic healing, and magic to reclaim control of their inner selves. This is an advantage for spiritual leaders like Deepak Chopra, whose book Quantum Healing focuses on the “network of intelligence” (basically, a shared consciousness) which is ever-present in the world, accessible only to those who train themselves to use it. This idea very loosely comes from the concept of quantum entanglement, which states that certain particles appear to remain linked with one another over time. Chopra implies that this also applies to the human body and mind, and that the inherent interconnectedness of the universe means that we can absorb or draw energy from any particle or wave in any location that is “entangled” with one in our body. This is, of course, not exactly true. The theory of quantum mechanics applies only to quantum matter – you guessed it – the really tiny stuff. Large objects are indeed combined of matter that can also function as a wave, but the waves are so small that we don’t notice them at the macro level.
Quantum mysticism is an interesting philosophical analysis of quantum mechanics, but is there any validity to it? Not really. As a philosophy, it claims to interpret the implications that quantum mechanics may have on our reality. As a science, well, it’s not a science. It’s mostly a way for spiritual leaders to capitalize on fringe science that most people don’t thoroughly understand. But for many trans-rational thinkers, it is an interesting philosophy which combines the known with the unknown. My assessment: quantum mysticism is cool, but quantum mechanics is way cooler.