Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Physicists Don’t Want to Understand Quantum Mechanics

To do so would mean adopting a ‘mystical’ worldview.

Key points

  • Psychologists and scientists have struggled to understand consciousness because they didn't want to accept what quantum mechanics told them.
  • Science's most successful theory, quantum mechanics, has been saying that everything is ultimately consciousness for the last century.
  • If we assume everything is ultimately consciousness, many of science's and psychology's hardest problems might be solved.
This post is in response to
Quantum Effects In the Brain

In his 2019 New York Times opinion piece entitled, “Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics. Worse, they don’t seem to want to understand it,” physicist Sean Carroll wrote, “Few modern physics departments have researchers working to understand the foundations of quantum theory. On the contrary, students who demonstrate an interest in the topic are gently but firmly — maybe not so gently — steered away, sometimes with an admonishment to “Shut up and calculate!”

Why would physicists not want to understand science’s most successful theory and furthermore, why would they discourage their students from trying? Based on the early history of quantum mechanics, it is my theory that the answer is they already knew where such an understanding would lead. It leads to the ‘mystical’ worldview held by eastern Vedic philosophy, and other western philosophies, that everything is ultimately consciousness. That worldview has been, and is, unpalatable to the physics establishment (see Juan Miguel Marin’s 2009 paper in the European Journal of Physics entitled, “'Mysticism' in quantum mechanics: the forgotten controversy”).

But the mystifying results of experiments concerning quantum mechanics make adopting this ‘mystical’ worldview an elegant path to reconcile the counterintuitive aspects of quantum mechanics. If we, at least for argument's sake, adopt this worldview, then not only would quantum mechanics become plausible, but it would also solve one of the most difficult and fundamental problems in philosophy. Philosopher David Chalmers called it the hard problem of consciousness, which is the problem of explaining why and how we have personal, first-person experiences, and how our brains can produce such experiences.

Consciousness Is Inseparable from Quantum Theory

In 1931, the father of quantum mechanics, Max Planck, spoke about one of the major controversies at the foundation of the then evolving quantum theory when he said, “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.” That was construed as a ‘mystical’ worldview by the physics establishment, and because it was deemed mystical, they discouraged their students from investigating or adopting it. Does current quantum theory agree with that statement? It turns out that many physicists would not argue with it, and even more would prefer to ignore it and sweep it under the rug.

Another major issue at the foundation of quantum theory that physicists tried to sweep under the rug is that the consciousness of an observer interacts with and instantaneously influences the observed. Erwin Schrödinger, who was an integral part of the early history of quantum mechanics, in his 1944 book, What is Life? With Mind and Matter, writes, “subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.” His point-of-view seemed mystical and therefore students were steered away from it.

As experimental data was presented to the physics community over the intervening years it became increasingly clear to modern physicists that the ‘mystical’ worldview might be a more appropriate interpretation of the facts. In 1979 Bernard d'Espagnat, a French theoretical physicist and author best known for his work on the nature of reality, wrote "the doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.” In 2011, Rosenblum and Kuttner published the book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness which states “Quantum theory…tells us that the reality of the physical world depends somehow on our observation of it. This is hard to believe.” And in his New York Times opinion piece which opened this article, Sean Carroll wrote ‘[that quantum mechanics] seems to require separate rules for how quantum objects behave when we’re not looking at them, and how they behave when they are being observed…The whole thing is preposterous…Is consciousness somehow involved in the basic rules of reality?”

Everything Is Connected

And it gets even more preposterous. Rosenblum and Kuttner write “‘Separability’ has been our shorthand term for the ability to separate objects so that what happens to one in no way affects what happens to others. Without separability, what happens at one place can instantaneously affect what happens far away–even though no physical force connects the objects…That our actual world does not have separability is now generally accepted, though admitted to be a mystery…Quantum theory has this connectedness extending over the entire universe...a universal connectedness whose meaning we have yet to understand.” If every object, and everything, in our universe are not separated but are instantaneously connected to and influence everything else (Einstein called this ‘spooky action at a distance’) then this implies either that whatever connects them moves at infinite speed, or every object and everything in our universe are actually one thing. This is spooky and hard to understand. How do we make sense of all of this?

Shifting Our Worldview Solves the Problem

The ‘mystical’ worldview of Vedic philosophy, and other western philosophies, offers a simple, fundamental shift in our prevailing worldview that, if made, would allow us to reconcile and understand the following three statements:

  1. Consciousness is fundamental; matter is derived from consciousness.
  2. Subject and object are only one.
  3. All objects in our universe are connected and influence each other instantly.

If we make such a paradigm shift and assume that everything is ultimately consciousness then the above three mystifying statements, Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness, and, I believe, many other difficult problems are suddenly understandable and solvable.

If we assume that ‘mystical’ worldview, then Max Planck’s statement “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness.” becomes logical. ‘Subject and object are only one’ now makes sense because the actual subject of any observation is consciousness, and we are assuming the object is made of consciousness. And, the fact that our universe does not have separability, that everything is instantaneously connected, now is no longer ‘spooky’ because if everything is ultimately consciousness then there is only one thing in our universe, consciousness. Everything is instantly connected because everything is ultimately the same thing, consciousness.

And, in assuming that everything is consciousness we make Chalmers’s hard problem of consciousness easy. If everything is ultimately consciousness, then subjective experience is primary and fundamental. We do not need to be explained how brains can produce consciousness because we are assuming brains do not produce consciousness. Brains are made of consciousness. They are the TVs, video cameras, and computer monitors that allow our inner consciousness to experience what we call the ‘outside’ world, which is also ultimately consciousness.

A Simple Answer Clarifies the Problem

In summary, physicists were reluctant to understand quantum mechanics because they knew it led to an unpalatable ‘mystical’ worldview that everything is ultimately consciousness. If we assume this is true it allows us to make sense of and understand quantum mechanics, to solve Chalmers’s hard problem of consciousness, and, I believe, to solve many of the difficult questions in science, the social sciences, and philosophy in an elegant manner. The validity of a worldview is often judged and tested by its ability to explain and simplify otherwise difficult problems. By this measure, a ‘mystical’ worldview, that everything is ultimately consciousness, passes this test with flying colors.