Does Quantum Physics Prove Mysticism?

Posted on 12 August 2005

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Since Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics popularized the parallels between quantum physics and Eastern mystical philosophies, some people have concluded that quantum physics implies a mystical worldview. But does it really?

First, we should recognize that quantum physics admits multiple philosophical interpretations, and they are all consistent with the empirical predictions of the theory. There is the Copenhagen interpretation, the many worlds interpretation, the Bohm interpretation, and dozens more, depending on how fine you draw your distinctions. Included among this variety of interpretations are several mystical interpretations.

Second, there is no agreement on which interpretation of quantum physics is correct. Why not? Because nature does not tell us which interpretation of quantum theory is correct. Physicists may favor some interpretations over others, but that is a matter of cultural consensus, and not based on scientific evidence. In short, there is no scientific proof for any one interpretation. We just don’t know exactly what reality quantum physics points to.

However, while quantum theory may not tell us exactly what our world is, it does tell us what our world is not. There are some very definite constraints it places on how we view reality. In particular, quantum theory is incompatible with naive realism, the view of reality that takes for granted that things exist objectively “out there” independent of each other and separated in time and space. That is one thing it does share with mysticism. And there are other parallels as well. So, although quantum physics does not prove, validate, or imply a mystical worldview (or any other worldview), it can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with mysticism.

Because scientific facts cannot determine for us one unique interpretation, we must choose among those interpretations that are compatible with the theory and the facts. When we make that choice, we must bring in other extra-scientific criteria if we are to make more than a random choice. One criterion is to seek a coherent worldview that is comprehensive of the broadest range of human experience. An interpretation of quantum physics that is compatible with mysticism has the virtue of bringing our overall understanding of reality into greater harmony and coherence.

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Posted in: Philosophy, Science