The Transitive Theory of Weirdness

Monday October 6, 2008

Schrodinger's Cat

A couple of weeks ago, rugby player Johnny Wilkinson was in the press talking about quantum physics and Buddhism. The BBC quoted Wilkinson as follows:

I read about Schrodinger’s Cat and it had a huge effect on me […] It was all about the idea that an observer can change the world just by looking at something; the idea that mind and reality are somehow interconnected. It is difficult to put into words, but it hit me like a steam train. I came to understand that I had been living a life in which I barely featured […] I do not like religious labels, but there is a connection between quantum physics and Buddhism, which I was also getting into.”

Culturally speaking, this is an interesting passage, in part because Wilkinson repeats the very common trope of drawing parallels between quantum physics and various New Agey ideas. When this is done, often the connections between the two are made in the vaguest terms. An exquisite example of this is in the film Old Joy – a wonderful film in which almost nothing happens, and one (as an aside) that features probably the finest and most doggy performance by any dog in the entire history of film. The film is about two men, played by Daniel London and (the also pretty damn weird) Will Oldham, and a dog, played by a dog, who go into the woods in search of hot springs, get lost, find the springs, bathe and then go home. About half way through the film, Kurt, the character played by Will Oldham, is sitting by the fire and staring into the flames, and is stoned out of his head. ‘Quantum physics, man,’ he says (and it’s some time since I’ve seen the film, so I don’t remember the exact words), ‘I just intuitively understand it.’ ‘Explain it to me, then,’ his sceptical friend replies. ‘I can’t explain it man,’ Kurt rambles on. ‘It’s intuitive, you know. I just understand it on a deep level.’

This came back to me as I read the quote from Wilkinson. Heartfelt though it clearly was, it was not at all clear what he meant. Now it may well be that there is something in what Wilkinson has read – about Buddhism and about quantum physics – that has struck a chord, and that has been humanly useful, and I’m fine with this. Certainly it may be the case that a cursory reading of the popular literature on quantum mechanics (and that is the most that I think I will ever attain to, if that) might provide one with a bunch of metaphors that may be, as the anthropologist Levi-Strauss once famously said, “good to think with”: useful as a way of reflecting upon life. And if these metaphors help, then perhaps all well and good. But it is also worth being clear that having access to this bunch of metaphors is not at all the same kind of things as the understanding, or the doing, of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, after all, is a hard discipline, one that is steeped in complex mathematics that takes years of training. I don’t understand it, intuitively or otherwise. Neither, it is clear in the film, does Kurt. Nor, I very much suspect, does Johnny Wilkinson.

What is going on here is what I like to think of (or I do now, having just invented the term) as the Transitive Theory of Weirdness, and as this is a phenomenon that is quite widespread, it is one that is bears some reflection. It goes something like this.

a: quantum physics is pretty damn weird
b: idea x is pretty damn weird
therefore
c: idea x is like quantum physics.

This, of course, makes no sense at all. There are many kinds of weirdness. Some of them are well supported by the data (the quantum world really is very, very strange, but this weirdness is supported by a wealth of good empirical data) whilst others are not (the ideas that yogis can fly or that they can go months without food are also very, very strange… but they are supported by no reliable data whatsoever). It is important to distinguish between different kinds of weirdness, and to ask questions about empirical data, because of the way in which the Transitive Theory of Weirdness is often deployed. Very frequently, it is used to justify spurious and untenable perspectives upon the world, on the grounds that any weird claim whatsoever is supported by the baseline weirdness of quantum mechanics: it is true and good, that is (and is supported, of course, by the physics) because it is weird.

This claim that there is a link between the weirdness of a proposition and its truth is seriously undermining of any clear-headed thought. If we sign up to this, then there is no limit to the amount of junk that we can let into our brains. Indeed, this Transitive Theory of Weirdness might tempt us to accept things – Kierkegaard-style – on the “strength” of their absurdity, to accept them more readily the more bizarre they become. But this is not a good idea. As Sue Blackmore has said, I think, it may be good to be a bit open minded, but if you are too open minded (and “open-mindedness” is the cardinal virtue of the New Age), your mind becomes like a skip, and anybody walking past can throw whatever junk they like into it.

As a result, I remain sceptical of those who want to draw connections between whatever brand of wisdom they are selling and the mysteries of the quantum world. And certainly when it comes to Buddhism, I am not convinced that the comparison throws any particularly useful light either on any aspects of Buddhism or on any aspects of quantum mechanics.

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#1 · Jakob

6 October 2008

There is no denying the prevalence of the logic you summarise as a:,b:,c:. But…

It seems a bit uncharitable to imply that this is the likely cause in the example that you quote at the outset.

Are you claiming this because he is ‘only’ (admittedly my word!) a rugby player. Or because you think the synergies between quantum science and Buddhism are weak?

If it is the former then that inevitably reads as being snobbish. If it is the latter then there is a lot of serious literature that suggests otherwise.

I hope I am being constructive in my criticism. It seems a bit pedantic of me when I agree with the broader conclusion so wholeheartedly!

Jakob
(now a regular reader)

PS I think it was Utah Phillips who came up with the best criticism of new-age mumbo-jumbo…“No matter how new age you get, old age is gonna kick your ass”.

#2 · Will

6 October 2008

Hi, Jakob,

Thanks for the comment,which is indeed constructive. My impression is, as I hope is clear from the piece, that what JW is doing is pulling metaphors from popular presentations of quantum physics that are “good to think with”, and I think it would be very uncharitable to dismiss this out of hand. These metaphors may indeed have their uses.

So my main issue is not with Wilkinson himself, but with the wider cultural field in which quantum weirdness is used an excuse to say anything one likes. It is this tendency that I think is unhelpful. As I think you have a point about the tone of this posting, I’ve amended the final paragraph (something I rarely do) so that the focus is more strictly where it should be: on this wider cultural field.

Of course, whether there are actually are any deeper connections between “Buddhism” and “quantum physics” is a different matter, and I’d have to ask what kind of connections are being sought here (what does it mean to say that there are connections between these two very different kinds of things), and why they are being sought.

All the best,

Will

#3 · Tom Armstrong

6 October 2008

Will,

I think that Wilkinson is just saying that finding a connection between mind and matter occurs both with Schrodinger’s Cat and in Buddhist philosophy relating to reality.

If you look at the Wikipedia entries on Schrodinger’s Cat and Reality in Buddhism, I think you can see how someone [including me!] would find a connection.

Schrodinger’s Cat
en.wikipedia.org/wik…
Reality in Buddhism
en.wikipedia.org/wik…

#4 · Jakob

6 October 2008

Becoming a serial replier probably marks me out as some kind of cyber-crank but here goes anyway…

I agree with all you say above, and this slight change in focus makes this now even clearer.

You do though go on to say…

>I’d have to ask what kind of connections are >being sought here (what does it mean to say >that there are connections between these two >very different kinds of things)

I don’t think they are very different. In Buddhism the study of suffering leads to questions, and answers, about the nature of mind (capitalised in Zen!).

Quantum physics leads to questions, and again answers, about the nature of the mind when it turns out that the mind has an active role in the creation of the physical world.

When many of those conclusions overlap it is inevitable that a dialogue between the two traditions seems very sensible. One may well learn from the other.

www.alanwallace.org/… is a good place to start.

Again, hoping I am remaining constructive!

#5 · Will

6 October 2008

Hi, Tom and Jakob,

Good to see you, Tom, and thanks for the links. There still is, as far as I can tell (and, as I said, I don’t understand this stuff either, but then as Feynman, I think, says, if you think you understand it then you don’t - which doesn’t mean that if you think you don’t, then you actually do!) no scientific consensus about the need for a conscious observer in QM. And it is not clear, when the need for a conscious observer is proposed, what this actually means. As for Schrodinger’s cat, I’m going to leave that on one side, because Bodhicattva, the thinkBuddha cat, is beginning to look a little twitchy.

Thanks again, Jakob. I think there are several reasons to question whether it can be straightforwardly claimed that the mind has a role in the creation of the physical world (although in a psychological sense, the Dhammapada’s “Our life is the creation of our mind” is fine by me). Amongst these are the following:

1. As mentioned above, the role of consciousness in QM is still very much in dispute and the jury here seems to be still out.

2.Moving from the level of very small quantum weirdness to the level of everyday stuff, mind seems to be something relatively new in the history of the universe and for most of its life, the universe has probably been pretty mindless (unless we go with David Chalmers’s contention that all systems have mind, even thermostats), and it still seems to have got on just fine.

3. It is not clear what this idea of consciousness that we are calling on actually is. I have a problem with talk of consciousness because, for most of my own life, I, like the universe, seem to be pretty mindless (as does Bodhicattva, for that matter).

Best wishes,

Will

#6 · Jakob

6 October 2008

So there is a spectrum of uncertainty. At one end this allows the kind of irrational open-mindedness you originally highlighted. At the other end, where a surprising amount of science lives, we admit there is uncertainty but use the weak signals as guides.

I think all we disagree on is where certain phenomena lie and that is inevitable really.

Thanks for the thought-provoking blog!

#7 · Tom

7 October 2008

In a book review/essay I wrote eight years ago for Hundred Mountain, I tie Buddhism in with string theory.

www.hundredmountain….

I remain convinced that physics and Buddhism are tied together, just as matter and consciousness are.

Let me end this comment with the last quote from my article:

“Man disposes himself and looks upon this disposition [as the world]. That man is time is undeniably like this. One has to accept that in this world there are millions of objects and that each one is, respectively, the entire world—this is where the study of Buddhism commences. When one comes to realize this fact, [one perceives that] every object, every living thing is the whole, even though it itself does not realize it. As there is no other time than this, every time-being is the whole of time: one blade of grass, every single object is time. Each point of time includes every being and every world.” — Zen Master Dogen

#8 · Dave

7 October 2008

Will, you are a curmugeon after my own heart.

I was brought up short by the word “skip,” which I gather from context must be akin to what we Yanks call a dumpster.

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