Wisdom From Polkinghorne

If you are not already familiar with Oxford’s series of Very Short Introductions, I recommend having a look. I’ve read about two dozen of them to this point and have found them to be consistently excellent.

I’ve just finished reading the volume on Quantum Theory, written by John Polkinghorne. I especially liked his concluding two paragraphs, where in the space of a few sentences he says all that is important in dealing with the woo-meisters who use the subject for their own New Agey ends:

It seems appropriate to close this chapter with an intellectual health warning. Quantum theory is certainly strange and surprising, but it is not so odd that according to it `anything goes.’ Of course, no one would actually argue with such crudity, but there is a kind of discourse that can come perilously close to adopting that caricature attitude. One might call it `quantum hype.’ I want to suggest that sobriety is in order when making an appeal to quantum insight.

We have seen that the EPR effect does not offer an explanation of telepathy, for its degree of mutual entanglement is not one that could facilitate the transfer of information. Quantum processes in the brain may possibly have some connection with the existence of the human conscious mind, but random subatomic uncertainty is very different indeed from the exercise of the free will of an agent. Wave/particle duality is a highly surprising and instructive phenomenon, whose seemingly paradoxical character has been resolved for us by the insights of quantum field theory. It does not, however, afford us a license to indulge in embracing any pair of apparently contradictory notions that take our fancy. Like a powerful drug, quantum theory is wonderful when applied correctly, disastrous when abused and misapplied.

Comments

  1. #1 Wes
    March 28, 2008

    That’s a good quote.

    I can’t remember where, but I read the term “quantum flapdoodle” somewhere, and it has since become my term of choice for describing the ignorant gibberish being spouted by people like Deepak Chopra and the woo-mongers in What the Bleep Do We Know?.

  2. #2 Reginald Selkirk
    March 28, 2008

    Polkinghorne goes in for a different kind of woo. He is a Templeton prize winner who thinks that cosmological fine-tuning can somehow support a conclusion of orthodox Anglicanism.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 28, 2008

    Polkinghorne reminds me a lot of Ken Miller. His scientific writing is consistently excellent, but his theological writing is a lot less impressive, to put it kindly.

  4. #4 Jim
    March 28, 2008

    Let’s see “quantum flapdoodle” spouted by “woo meisters”. Yep, both phrases work well for the disparagement that it/they deserve(s).

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    March 28, 2008

    Quantum processes in the brain may possibly have some connection with the existence of the human conscious mind, but random subatomic uncertainty is very different indeed from the exercise of the free will of an agent.

    I’d say this is being too kind. See, for elaboration, the paper of A. Litt et al.,Is the Brain a Quantum Computer” (2006). You’ll get a kick out of it.

  6. #6 J. J. Ramsey
    March 28, 2008

    I have a question about the book. Does it get into the equations of quantum theory at all, or how the equations tie into the seeming weirdness of quantum mechanics?

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    March 28, 2008

    J.J. Ramsey-

    The main body of the text is mostly math free. There is an appendix that provides a few pages of mathematical details, but I suspect it is not what you are looking for. There is a Further Reading section that points people towards more sohpisticated treatments of the subject, however.

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    March 29, 2008

    J.J.,

    It’s not the opinion of an expert, but my personal favorite book on abstract quantum theory is Asher Peres’ “Quantum Theory: Concepts and Methods.” It’s pricey, and advanced, but it certainly does illuminate the counterintuitive nature of quantum theory.

  9. #9 J. J. Ramsey
    March 29, 2008

    Thanks for the reference. It looks promising. (And my university has access to an electronic copy. Yay!) I’ve been trying to get the hang of density functional theory and am kinda sorta starting to understand it, but while it’s certainly heavy on the math, I hadn’t seen a whole lot of connection to the weirder aspects of QM. This might help me get a better feel for things.

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