Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Quantum Theories of Magic: why till now I am not so impressed....

Part 1: It is MATH! (or rather: it should be!)

The Dirac equation, a relativistic wave equation describing e.g. electrons

A recent discussion about the relationship between high magic (in this case defined as the art and science to change states of consciousness at will) and science, most notably quantum physics, has triggered at least this blog. In this -and hopefully subsequent follow-ups- I will attempt to elaborate a bit on why I do not think magical and paranormal results can be explained from quantum mechanics, let alone superstring or M-theory.

At present, we do not know what consciousness is. We also do not fully understand all the ramifications that quantum physics entails. And we most certainly do not fully understand string theory. We don't even know if it is in any way correct or just a giant mathematical house of cards. Yet this does not stop several daredevils -or original thinkers- to posit a relationship between these terrae incognitae and even offer explanations of one unknown in terms of the other.

Now I do believe that if quantum mechanics -or string theory for that matter- are true descriptions of the physical world, there must be some kind of link between the ultrasmall scale at which quantum phenomena typically occur and the large-scale structures of everyday experience. The point is that at present we do not really know what that link looks like, other than being described by the statistics of large numbers. Consciousness and the magical manipulation thereof belong to the realm of everyday experience, and therefore do not really exhibit quantum behavior. For that reason alone, invoking (pardon the pun!) quantum theory to explain it would be not unlike playing pool table by calculating the orbit of each and every molecule of the queue ball and adding those up.

I have a number of objections against the use of quantum mechanics to explain magical (or paranormal) phenomena, and the first and foremost -and the topic of this blog- is straighforward: what is used is simply not quantum mechanics, despite the name.

Quantum mechanics is a mathematical theory describing the behaviour of abstract mathematical quantities using abstract mathematical equations. A Wikipedia article describes the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and starts by stating that “Each physical system is associated with a (topologically) separable complex Hilbert space H with inner product” and proceeds by postulating how the elements of this abstract construct known as a “Hilbert space” are to be manipulated in order to obtain the rigorous mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics.

After some clever mathematical juggling, the properties and behaviors of these quantities ultimately have to be somehow “translated back” into physical reality in order to make any sense to us at all, and -if at all possible- enable us to verify them experimentally. It is this last translation step that is often the most difficult, especially when dealing with theories using highly advanced and advancing mathematics, such as string theory. Very often it is far from clear how to translate back towards “physics”. And there is also one very big pitfall!

The world of quantum phenomena is in many ways completely different from our everyday life. If it weren't, there probably would not be a need for a special theory anyway ;-). This, however, means that many quantum phenomena (which as one recalls are derived from mathematical manipulation of abstract quantities) simply do not have an everyday counterpart. Attempts to explain such phenomena using everyday imagery and examples inevitably gives the impression that something “magical” or “uncanny” is afoot.

This may incidentally be one of the reasons “quantum mechanics” and “magic” are brought together by some. To us, certain behaviours of quantum particles may seem “magical”, but that is only because we have no frame of reference to those behaviours in our everyday lives. And there you have in a nutshell what many so-called quantum theoretical explanations of magic and the paranormal amount to: based on everyday (in physics, one talks about “classical” rather than "everyday") imagery which in reality does not correspond to anything in the 'quantum world'. Such attempts are bound to fail, as they are not based on anything quantum mechanical, but instead on a crude translation into more “human” terms. It is simply put not quantum mechanics, despite the assertion!

As an example of such mix-up, consider Larry Cornetts opening statement to his the case for his blog article “How Magic and Esp Work - A Quantum Mechanical Perspective



"In quantum mechanics, reality is described by waves defining the probabilities of different outcomes from the same interactions. These waves manifest as what we have been taught to call matter, energy, particles, and/or waves when observed. These probability waves overlap and continue forever. The interactions between different entities constitute a single structure of linked wave patterns, so that the entire universe can be thought of as an unbroken whole. The waves form a matrix, with all parts of the system affecting all other parts. Non-local relationships exist between parts of the system that are distant from each other."


He misses the point right in the first statement: "Reality is described by waves defining the probabilities of different outcomes from the same interactions”.

What is meant here is the so-called "wavefunction". In the widely used method of Erwin Schrodinger this is a mathematical construct that contains everything there is to know about a particle and whose square is interpreted as a measure of the probability to find that particle in a particular state. Wavefunctions are the solutions to equations that are partly derived from an equation describing the motion of a classical wave or vibration, an example being the Dirac equation that graces the top of this blog. Now this wavefunction by itself is just an abstract mathematical construct. For many applications of quantum mechanics, one does not even need an explicit formula what it looks like. There are some physicists who claim these wavefunctions have some objective existence, but many don't agree with this. The verdict is almost impossible to give as the wavefunction itself is unobservable (though its square is not).

If you've followed me so far, you may appreciate how Cornett mixes up the idea of an abstract mathematical wave function with a concrete physical wave, and uses the latter imagery to arrive at many compelling, yet quantum mechanically incorrect statements, as there are no such things as probability waves that sweep through the universe and connect everything together. A classical example of incorrect extrapolation, I would say.

The main point of all this: any quantum mechanical theory about magic (or indeed: about whatever) needs to be first and foremost a mathematical theory. Everyday images may derived from this eventually, but a theory build on everyday imagery alone will simply not be quantum mechanical.

And this is just one of the many objections. There is also the matter of “scale” but I leave that for the next time!