Archive | December 2009

Quantum Mechanics: New Age Entanglements

(Last Update: 2011/01/23 – Text Corrections & Clarifications)
One of the most commonly used means of supporting belief in various sorts of New Age and mystical/psychic woo is the invocation of that popular and notoriously poorly understood icon of modern physics, Quantum Mechanics: Wouldn’t it be ducky if everything in the Universe were intimately connected to everything else, every particle bound to every other through the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, all of reality in holistic unity; a holographic universe in which nothing was truly separate from anything else, all existing as a single zero-dimensional point in which all possibilities are realized, our notions of objective reality an illusion? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if All were One?  That instant communication with anyone in the universe, regardless of apparent distance or time by reading the quantum oscillation of entangled atoms across the universe, including particles in our own brains so bound to those of others, was possible? Doesn’t this sound just a little too convenient? Well, unfortunately it is. It’s bullshit, and here’s why:

The phenomenon of entanglement, or the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) effect, is a property in which two or more particles, though separated by distance, perhaps even at opposite sides of the universe, can show a sort of ‘spooky action at a distance’ through the action of quantum non-locality, and a thing which we have experimentally confirmed through our tests of quantum teleportation, instantaneously transmitting the quantum properties of one particle to an entangled counterpart at theoretically any distance.

This entanglement allows the instant exchange of quantum states, such as, say, the property of spin, between the bound particles, even as far apart as the other side of the Galaxy, simultaneously. Where one particle would be, say, spin up at any instant, its twin would simultaneously be spin down. And any change in one particle’s quantum state would instantly result in change to that of the other. The problem is that Einstein’s theory of Special relativity still holds at astronomical distances, so that nothing, no energy, and thus no information that could be carried by that energy, may travel faster than light, much less instantly.

It should be noted, however, that there is some controversy among physicists as to the exact operative definition of the term Instant.

The act of ‘observing,’ really just physical interaction, and having nothing to do with any human notions of ‘consciousness’ since one is merely interacting with the particles in order to read them by bouncing other particles of radiation of some form or another off of them, thus changing their quantum state, and this would cause the entangled particles to exchange their quantum properties between each other randomly.

This, and the limits on the speed of energy transfer imposed by Special relativity ensure that only random noise would be obtained from such non-local ‘communication.’ No meaningful data may thus be instantaneously transferred.

Our current understanding, and laboratory observations thus far indicate that quantum cryptography, the transfer of data in a way that seems to disallow any possible eavesdropping, at the speed of light by way of entangled photons, is possible, but the ansible, while interesting in principle, from the Ender’s Game science-fiction series is not.

Another problem presents itself during the observation of these particles, an issue not taken into account by some ‘Oneness’ models of cosmology derived from quantum mechanics: that of quantum decoherence, a phenomenon caused by entanglement itself, the new bonding resulting from the interaction of any one or more of a set of entangled particles with any other particles in the universe, causing an overriding of the original entangled state of the particles, thus scribbling over any older non-local connections with new ones, whatever particles they have most recently interacted with.

Quantum entities tend to be promiscuous when it comes to entanglement, interacting and entangling with any new random particles they come in contact with, the very source of their own decoherence.

This is why alleged phenomena such as psi are untenable quantum mechanically as we currently understand physical laws to operate. Even if any particles in one person’s brain could somehow be entangled with those in another brain, thus supposedly allowing non-local exchange of information by paranormal means, the fact that these same particles are interacting with any other particles in either of the two linked brains, means that any entanglement existing would be scribbled over almost as quickly as it began.

Human beings alone are composed of a staggering number of particles, all of them interacting with each other and foreign particles originating from outside the body, reaching us from other parts of the universe, especially from our immediate environs and from other regions within our own bodies.

For objects as large as humans, even our brains alone have such a large de Broglie wavelength, such a high quantum number, that the decoherence caused by the continuous entanglement of the particles making it up with each other and indeed all other surrounding particles bombarding them, that for any noticeable quantum effects to occur, one would have to wait longer than the lifespan of the universe to see them.

To quote Robert Novella, ‘human beings are walking bags of decoherence.’ Such quantum intimacy seemingly granted by entanglement is denied us on any meaningful timescale, for it is overcome almost immediately in the event that it does happen by its own indiscriminate nature. It seems that, as far as current understanding of quantum theory is concerned, I’m sorry to say that science really doesn’t support the mystics after all…

Skeptic Envy

Everybody is skeptical about something, but there’s a huge world of difference between being skeptical, and being a skeptic. I’m not referring to Classical Skeptikoi, of course, but to modern skeptics, those who have respect for science and reality, as well as a healthy doubt of such things as ghosts, UFOs, psychic powers, free-energy machines, and Bigfoot, of course.

The term ‘skeptic’ has until recently been associated with a lot of negative baggage, such as a confusion with the modern definition of ‘cynic,’ but lately the word has been shedding that baggage and become quite popular among those who express ‘doubt’ toward something.

Unfortunately, many of those who would lay claim to this increasingly prestigious title use the term to express not questioning the truth of a claim until evidence is rendered, but frequently an ideological contrarianism and a callous disregard for science and reality.

Included in this category are creationists, anti-vaccinationists, global warming critics, 9/11 truthers, holocaust deniers, and even paranormalists who co-opt the term for their own purposes.

On the one hand, this muddies the waters, so to speak, but the fact that ‘skeptic’ is so popular now (despite its misuse by contrarians), and getting more so, kind of removes a lot of the negative implications the word has had in the minds of the general public, making it easier for modern Socratic gadflies of questionable claims to move more into the mainstream of public consciousness and more effectively do the societal damage-control that scientific skepticism is supposed to.

Skepticism is a Good Thing

Hey, guys. I recently came upon this post on a psychic’s blog I sometimes frequent, the post in question being entitled There Are No Good Skeptics, and since I feel obligated to act the stereotype of the Evil Pseudoskeptic™, I thought I would have a little fun with it, deconstructing a few of the points it makes in order, and showing just how and where it is simply far off the mark.

Believers tend to have a very parochial view of skeptics, and often promote a number of common logical fallacies and misconceptions about them that they do not bother to challenge.

I’ll attempt to point out in this post precisely how they are excellent examples of highly flawed thinking and how in many instances, believers are merely launching defensive tirades.

There are too many misconceptions and logical errors in the article of discourse for all to be handled in the space of this post, so I’ll deal mostly with the four, in order, that stand out the most, those that the author himself has chosen to highlight.

Where possible for considerations of space, the points addressed will be complete and verbatim:

Skepticism does not allow curiosity. One of the hallmarks of almost every skeptic I have come across is that as soon as they find information that agrees with their views they stop looking. Why? If you’re convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist, you stop looking into it or looking for it. You simply assume that everything you hear that might be positive simply can’t be true.

Wow! My logical fallacy meter just overloaded. This is a straw man as well as a cheap ad hominem. It completely misrepresents how skeptical thinking works, nor are skeptics convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist without doing the research to actually find out. Fact-checking is skeptical. Also…

There also seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy here to round out this troika of fallacies, implying that one has to either be curious or skeptical and not allowing for the possibility of both.

Skepticism does not challenge its assumptions. When you doubt something, you doubt it for a reason. For example, many people doubt the existence of psychic ability because they think all the people who believe it are gullible; Or that the rest of science would rush to embrace it if it were true or that psychic people would rush to the casinos and win millions of dollars. Skeptics do not seem to understand that these are mere opinions about something they know little about.

The three claims trotted out as assumptions are simply a set of straw people. I do not hold these as ‘assumptions’ as part of my skepticism. And they certainly aren’t representative of the views of most skeptics even if ‘many people’ hold them. There is a difference between being skeptical about something, and being a skeptic.

Speaking for myself, the only assumptions I use are that (1) science and reason are valid ways of knowing the world, and (2) the world is real, whether or not it is what it appears to be.

The last statement is just an ad hominem, in this case a cheap way to dismiss skeptics by calling them ‘ignorant.’ It would have been much more informative if he had simply done the research to find out what the ‘assumptions’ of skepticism really are, and then address them instead of just dismissing his critics.

Skepticism slows the advance of ideas. One of the amazing features of skeptics everywhere is that they make very few contributions to the area they are criticizing. In parapsychology this is extreme. Out of thousands of studies you can count all of the vetted professional studies performed by dedicated skeptics on one hand. (Part of the reason for this is that once people are doing careful experiments they are allowing themselves to be convinced by the evidence. At which point the other skeptics consider them to be deluded believers.)

What to say about this one…what to say…This claim is so blatantly false that it comes seriously close to being an outright lie, but as I normally read this guy’s blog with the assumption that he’s being sincere in what he writes, out of respect I’ll refrain from making such an accusation.

All of modern science employs skepticism, as the complement, not the contradiction, to the curiosity to ask new questions and the imagination to conceive new ideas.

Skepticism is essential as the means to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; what works from what doesn’t.

Thomas Edison once said that science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the hard work of winnowing the intellectual gold from the intellectual rubbish, since most ideas ever conceived turn out to be wrong.

All scientists who have contributed to major advances in their field are skeptics by definition. It’s blind belief that impedes the advance of ideas.

Believers tend to express views of skeptics almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to the paranormal, and little else. They don’t consider the use of skepticism in the broader context of all of modern science.

It is very hard to learn new things about the subject you are skeptical about. Being skeptical means that you hold strong views on a subject. That means that contrary information only gets through via cognitive dissonance. That is to say, the evidence contrary to the opinion that is held has to be so overwhelming that the skeptic’s thinking process finally seizes up. All evidence up to that point is either ignored or dismissed. This is a very inefficient way to learn.

This claim is also simply false.

First, cognitive dissonance mostly applies to those beliefs that are very important, such as to our self-image and how we view the world, not what we only casually accept.

Second, different people deal with cognitive dissonance in different ways, and I deal with it by changing my beliefs without a hitch if the evidence warranting it is sufficient.

Third, as a skeptic I do not hold strong views on the paranormal, and many skeptics I’ve read consider belief in it it more interesting and important than the paranormal itself. To me, the idea of psi ability is just an intellectual curiosity, not something I’ve invested years and a lot of money in.

Conclusion: The author of the post critiqued here has said in at least one entry on his own blog that he has never understood the skeptical mindset, and his article is a prime example of that shortcoming.

In his article, he has attributed motives, thinking, beliefs and biases to skeptics that are simply not borne out as fact, and that despite claiming to be psychic he has no way of knowing short of doing the legwork to find out.

I have attempted to avoid committing such attributions in this critique, and out of respect for the author suggest that before he tries to present his personal views as objective fact, that he make the effort to inform those views. Otherwise, he’s just rehearsing his own prejudices.

(Last Update 14:36, 12/5/2009, Image Added)