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The New Spirituality

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A Pew Forum survey from December, 2009 reports that many Americans are mixing their traditional Christian beliefs with some more closely associated with Eastern religions. They seem to be attracted to the holistic spiritualism that was first championed by physicist Fritjof Capra in his 1975 bestseller The Tao of Physics and dubbed the "New Age."

Capra claimed to see a close connection between Eastern mysticism and modern physics, especially quantum mechanics, the revolutionary theory of atomic and subatomic phenomena that was developed in the early twentieth century. He declared that the reductionism of classical physics was passé and the world was approaching a holistic utopia in which everything was one, as taught by Buddha, Lao Tzu, and other ancient sages.

In the mid-1970s, the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had a physics background, introduced the idea of a "grand unified field" of cosmic consciousness into which our minds can tune (for a price) by Transcendental Meditation. Separating from the TM movement in the 1980s, physician Deepak Chopra began promoting a mixture of Eastern and Western self-help healing philosophies that has come to be called "quantum healing." The notion is that we can make our own reality, solve all our problems, and heal all our ills by just thinking about them. In recent years, this idea was picked up (and treated as newly discovered) in two highly successful films, What the Bleep Do We Know? and The Secret. In all cases, the proponents claim quantum mechanics shows that human thought can change reality by an act of will.

We can trace this new spirituality back to the early days of quantum mechanics when it seemed that fundamental phenomena such as light and electricity had two independent natures: wave and particle. In the eighteenth century light had been successfully described as an electromagnetic wave. But then in the early twentieth century light was also found to be composed of particles called photons. In the meantime, objects such as electrons that were generally particle-like were seen to also behave as waves. This became known as the wave-particle duality.

Furthermore, it seemed that whether an object is a particle or a wave depends on what you consciously decide to measure. If you try to measure a particle property, such as its position at a given time, then the object is a particle. If, on the other hand, you try to measure a wave property such as frequency or wavelength, then the object is a wave. The implication, then, is that your conscious mind is controlling the very nature of reality. As Chopra has put it, "The physical world is a creation of the observer."

Do you really believe that? Don't. Your mind can't control anything but your own body, here and now. The situation with respect to waves and particles is no different from one familiar to any engineer. Suppose an engineer is studying an electromagnetic signal from some distant source. She might move detectors around to determine its path. Then she is measuring the particle-like properties of the signal. Or she can send it into a spectrum analyzer and measure the signal's wave-like properties. In either case she is not deciding the nature of the signal, just using one of two complementary ways for analyzing it. In the university she learned how to mathematically move from one description to the other by means of what is called a Fourier transform. Quantum theory used Fourier transforms to move between the wave and particle pictures.

In short, a physical object isn't either a particle or a wave. These are just two alternative descriptions of the same object. You do not have to measure one property or the other exclusively. Observing a beam of light with appropriate apparatus, you find that localized photons are always present. The wave-like property of the light beam is found only in the statistical distribution the large number of photons it contains.

In the meantime, reductionism in physics has never been more firmly established. By the time The Tao of Physics was published in 1975, the standard model of elementary particles and forces had reduced all of familiar matter to three types of particles: the electron and two types of quarks. That model has agreed with all observations for over three decades.

However, you need not be a quantum physicist or an engineer to convince yourself that we cannot control reality just by thinking we can. We can see that with our own two eyes. It simply doesn't work. No one has ever become beautiful or rich just by visualizing it.