Monday October 6, 2008
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
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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