Are Quantum Mechanics and Eastern Philosophy Related?

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Misconceptions of Science

By Don Lincoln, Ph.D., Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab)

Both quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy have difficult and confusing concepts. But that is in no way enough to consider them connected. In simple terms, a carrot is not a giraffe, and a car is not a giraffe either. However, this does not make the carrot prove the car or vice versa. This is how strange it is to relate quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy! Read on to know why some people connect them still.

The universe within. Silhouette of a man inside the universe. The concept on scientific and philosophical topics.
Quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy or religions are not related. The quantum world does not support spirituality at all. (Image: Triff/Shutterstock)

When the concepts of quantum mechanics began confusing people, it apparently reminded some of Eastern philosophy. They began relating Schrodinger Cat, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, and quantum physics to Eastern philosophy. To know why they have connected the two, one must first know the bases and elements of quantum mechanics.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Misconceptions of Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Schrodinger Cat and Copenhagen Interpretation

The Schrodinger Cat is a hypothetical experiment in which a cat, one decaying radioactive atom, and a bottle of cyanide are put in a box. The cyanide bottle breaks and kills the cat as soon as the atom decays.

The Copenhagen interpretation says that the probability that the cat is alive is there, while the probability of it being dead is there too. The wave function can calculate the probability that the cat can be found alive. Both probabilities of being alive and dead will be valid until the box is opened, and observation makes the function collapse. Only then, the reality is revealed.

Shrodinger's Colorful Art Cat Illustration
Schrodinger Cat shows the concepts of quantum mechanics using the Copenhagen interpretation, but it was originally developed to show how absurd the interpretation is! (Image: OneSmallSquare/Shutterstock)

A very common misconception here is that many people think Schrodinger Cat is an explanatory example of the Copenhagen interpretation. They are wrong.

Learn more about how relativity is misunderstood.

The EPR Paper

In the beginning, Schrodinger found the Copenhagen interpretation absurd. He responded positively to a paper written by Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen. The paper is now known as the EPR paper.

They were working on the consequences of imposing quantum thinking on groups of objects larger than a single atom, which is called quantum entanglement. Einstein did not find the Copenhagen interpretation logical.

He said the Copenhagen interpretation would say that an unobserved keg of gunpowder could be simultaneously in both a state of exploded and unexploded. Schrodinger agreed and developed the Schrodinger Cat example to show how absurd the Copenhagen interpretation was.

Ironically, today the Cat experiment is used to explain the Copenhagen interpretation, which is considered to be one of the leading contenders for the meaning of mathematics of quantum mechanics. A key misconception in the interpretation is “observation.”

Learn more about the theory of everything.

Observation and the Mind

In the common definition, observation needs a living observer to make it happen. An observer needs to be able to see and understand, so a stone cannot observe as it lacks a mind. The concept of mind is, by nature, philosophical.

In science, the mind is not separate from the body. Most of our personality and consciousness lies in the wrinkles and corners of our brain. Of course, there are still many mysteries about this complex organ, but the interconnections of the neurons in our brain have already explained a lot about consciousness and mind.

Those who believe quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy, or even religion, are connected use observation to relate them. They use some real truths about quantum mechanics and the collapse of the wave function and observations to endorse any philosophical idea. However, the quantum truth is that any interaction of, say, an atom with anything can be an observation. The observation in the quantum world does not depend on an observer.

Unpredictable Consciousness

The main distinction that the Copenhagen interpretation draws between classical and quantum physics is that the first one is deterministic, while the second is probabilistic. Many people have used this and the fact that human decisions are not deterministic to relate quantum mechanics and philosophy. No one can predict a person’s decisions because of free will, which is an aspect of the mind.

Atomic particle reflection in the pupil of an eye for physics background
It is true that both free will and the quantum world are unpredictable, but quantum mechanics depends on probabilities, not willingly made decisions. (Image: Ezume Images/Shutterstock)

Consciousness and mind are not deterministic; neither is quantum physics. Next, they conclude that the scientific source of the mind is explained with quantum mechanics. It might look logical, but it is very wrong. Probability and free will are two separate concepts. When a coin flips, there is the probability of both heads and tails, but the coin does not decide. In the case of free will, there are some probabilities, but the person ultimately chooses what to decide.

Learn more about untangling how quantum mechanics works.

Quantum Mechanics and Eastern Philosophy

There are two influential books from the 1970s: Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Fritijof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Both depend on superficial similarities between the language of Buddhism and Taoism, on the one hand, and quantum mechanics, on the other.

Unfortunately, the writers either do not understand quantum mechanics or are merely misinterpreting it to endorse the philosophy they support. Quantum mechanics has nothing to do with spirituality at any level.

Common Questions about Quantum Mechanics and Eastern Philosophy

Q: Are there any books on quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy?

Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters and Fritijof Capra’s The Tao of Physics focus on how quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy are related, but they are not scientifically or philosophically right.

Q: Is the existence of the soul supported by quantum mechanics?

Unlike what some people have tried to prove, quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy are not on any level related. The soul is a philosophical and religious element and cannot be proved with quantum mechanics.

Q: Is the Schrodinger Cat a philosophical subject?

Schrodinger Cat is an example using which quantum concepts can be understood. However, quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy are not at all related, and the hypothetical Cat experiment is not philosophical either.

Q: Does quantum mechanics explain the relationship between the mind and brain?

Unlike common belief, quantum mechanics and Eastern philosophy are not connected. Mind and soul are not physical concepts, and quantum mechanics does not explain things about them.

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