Update: Sean Carroll on biocentrism

At my request, Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll gave me his take on Robert Lanza’s theory of biocentrism that I discussed this morning. Here’s what Sean emailed me (quoted with permission):

Like Chopra, Lanza mixes (1) completely legitimate (but strange sounding) statements about quantum mechanics, (2) tendentious interpretations of what quantum mechanics says that are defensible only because they are so vague, and (3) outright craziness. Quantum effects aren’t usually perceptible on the macro level, but of course they can be; that was the upshot of the blog post I wrote (which I think you linked to on your blog [JAC: he means “website”]. So that part is legitimate.

Things like “these waves of probability are not waves of material” are somewhat reminiscent of the truth—but sufficiently nebulous that they allow him to say things like “outside of that idea, the wave is not there” and “nothing is real unless it’s perceived,” which are just nonsense. The real problem with the Chopra/Lanza attempt to put “life” at the center of how we understand quantum mechanics is that no definition of “life” is ever offered. In physics, our theories map formal mathematical structures onto observable reality. The quantum state is a vector in Hilbert space, a well-defined mathematical object. It evolves according to the Schrödinger equation, a well-defined differential equation. What is “life,” or “consciousness,” from this perspective? What mathematical space is it an element of? What equations tell us how it evolves? These “theories” are hard to attack because there’s no there there, all you have are some fuzzy words and fast talk.

I stand corrected on the possibility of quantum effects on the macro level. But that still doesn’t tell us that the breadbox disappears when we leave the room.

27 Comments

  1. potaman
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    http://bit.ly/1eXQ00N Here is a fun video about quantum effects at macro scales.

  2. gbjames
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    There’s a breadbox?

    • js
      Posted December 3, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      What are breadboxes for, anyway?
      It’s not like they’re sealed or anything so the bread doesn’t go stale so quickly and these days with all the crap in them, bread lasts forever.

  3. Posted December 2, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Postmodernism meets mysticism. Appropriation and tagmemics in a fool’s paradise.

    • Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      They’ve long been connected. Bunge, for example, has pointed out in several places that the desire for religion, for psychoneural dualisms, etc. seems to be the motivating factor amongst pomos, even if they don’t say so. He points out how many defend pseudosciences explicitly, and how their intellectual forefathers were antiscientific reactionaries, like Heidegger.

  4. stuartcoyle
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I like Sean’s approach. All these ‘quantum’ claims should be refuted by
    asking for the mathematical description of the claim. Quantum theory is at heart a mathematical one and if you cannot show the mathematics for your claim physicists are right to dismiss you out of hand.

    If you can show me the Lagrangian or Hamiltonian for your “Biocentric field theory” (whatever), then you might have something worth testing, but you can’t, so it has nothing to do with quantum theory (or indeed any theory of physics.)

  5. colnago80
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    The following should be pointed out. The notion that quantum mechanics doesn’t hold at the macro level is not true. For instance, one can set up Schrodinger’s equation for, say, the Earth/Moon system. One doesn’t even have to do any work as the solutions are the same as for the hydrogen atom with the masses of the moon and the earth replacing the charges on the electron and the proton and the universal gravitational constant replacing the permittivity of the vacuum. The result will be quantized energy and angular momentum levels which are so close together that they are, for all practical, purposes indistinguishable from a continuum. Thus, this exercise provides no useful information and is not done as an exercise in quantum mechanics courses.

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      Objects as large as buckyballs sprayed individually through two slits form interference patterns according to the entry about this experiment in Wikipedia.

  6. darrelle
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    “But that still doesn’t tell us that the breadbox disappears when we leave the room.”

    Of course it doesn’t! But that is because the breadbox is concious. Get it? Consciousness is a basic attribute that all matter and energy have. Even electrons. And quarks! And the Higg’s Boson too!

    • Darth Dog
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      If the breadbox is conscious, be careful not to piss it off. If you do, when you leave the room, the breadbox may stay there and you might poof into nonexistence.

      • darrelle
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        Stupid breadbox.

      • Dionigi
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        The breadbox may stay when you leave the room but the biscuits definately do not. I have tested this theory many times. It also happens with the milk in the fridge at work it is never there when you go back for it.QM has a lot to answer for.

  7. Alex
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    It should be done more often though… Apart from observing that a macroscopic wave packet follows an approximately classical kepler trajectory, there are really interesting questions of decoherence in there (when waiting for very long times, how strongly does the wave function get smeared along the orbit like in a hydrogen atom, and can that ever have observable effects)

    • Alex
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      That was a reply to colnago80…

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

    Oh that Sean Carroll! He just doesn’t get the “other ways of knowing”. :) I kid of course.

    I had missed the lack of defining “life”; it’s kind of central to their whole thing being as their whole thing is called “biocentrism”, yet they fail to tell us what the bio part is! Very clever….hiding in plain sight (because we weren’t conscious of them).

    • Sastra
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      By “life” they mean “Vitalism.” Living things presumably “contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things. In its simplest form, vitalism holds that living entities contain some fluid, or a distinctive ‘spirit’.”

      In other words, you CAN’T do physics on life. Or biology either.

      Life is a sort of mysterious, irreducible magic. And while you can’t explain it, the cool thing is that you get to USE it as an explanation — without doing any further work! How innovative is that?

      Yeah, this sure is some cutting edge science.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

        Sounds like: take a dab of animism from the ancients then spice it up with some modern QM and there you have it – biocentrism!

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

        That’s the bit that really amazes me. They’re taking “theories” that went tits-up along with the demonic possession theory of disease, and trying to spruce up the fetid corpses with some colorful new quantum flowers.

        …and they expect people to take them seriously!

        Mind boggling.

        b&

        • gbjames
          Posted December 3, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink

          More amazing is that some people do take them seriously. And think scientists are narrow minded because they don’t. It is hard to have conversations with people like that.

  9. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    If you’d like to see an outstanding series of videos demonstrating real-life quantum effects observable in macroscopic behavior, this series on the superfluidity of liquid helium is well worth watching (the first in a series of 6 videos at the link).

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      Those were interesting. I did not notice where the quantum effects came in. Were they they in the weak van der Waals forces or the superfluid behavior?

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted December 3, 2013 at 5:15 am | Permalink

        The superfluid behavior. The virtually zero viscosity and virtually infinite thermal conductivity (second sound) are properties of the Bose-Einstein condensate, as is the zero entropy of the superfluid fraction of the liquid helium below the λ-transition temperature.

  10. Posted December 3, 2013 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    Here is a link to a nice quantum effect on the macro level you can do in your own home

    • Posted December 3, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

      Oops–sorry–just meant to post a link–not the whole upload. Anyway–the glow works for same reason as sodium lamps. The light from a sodium source is a spectroscopic line. An electric field excites some sodium atoms to a discrete quantum state. An individual sodium atom then makes a transition by emitting light that is characteristic of the atom, and produces the light we perceive.

  11. rainbowwarriorlizzie
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on HUMAN RIGHTS & THE SIEGE OF BRITAIN POLITICAL JOURNAL.

  12. DV
    Posted December 3, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    >>What is “life,” or “consciousness,” from this perspective? What mathematical space is it an element of? What equations tell us how it evolves? These “theories” are hard to attack because there’s no there there, all you have are some fuzzy words and fast talk.

    Oh no! Slippery slope. Next, somebody’s gonna ask, “What is ‘free will’, from this perspective?” and conclude, there’s no there there. We have no free will. We are unconscious. We are dead!

  13. Posted December 4, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    This whole Chopra-esque (Chopric? Choprastic? Chopral?) notion of things not being there unless we’re conscious of them reminds me of “object permanence” – without which young children believe you disappear if they cannot see you.

    Which then leads me to wonder if Chopra, Lanza, etc aren’t just infantile, or suffering from some other form of arrested development.


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