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Deepak Chopra Mangles Quantum Mechanics – Again

by Steven Novella, Nov 16 2009

Deepak Chopra has made a career out of misunderstanding quantum mechanics (QM) – and through his popularity, confusing the public. Like many others, he has found a superficial way in which to interpret quantum mechanics to make is seem as if it is congruent with Eastern metaphysics.

And now he has done it again, in that anti-science rag the Huffington Post. Chopra goes beyond the typical New Age distortion of QM, which is basically the claim that QM is really weird, therefore magic is real. Chopra assumes some very specific, and common, misinterpretations of QM. He writes:

Quantum physics tells us that objects exist in a suspended physical state until observed, when they collapse to just one outcome — we don’t know what happens until we investigate, and our investigation influences that reality. Whether or not certain events may have happened some time ago, may not actually be determined until some time in your future — it may actually be contingent upon actions that have not yet taken place.

Chopra is referring to the wave-particle duality of matter, quantum entanglement, and the uncertainty principle – but he gets them profoundly wrong. First he makes the common mistake of interpreting the collapse of the wave function as being dependent on an observer, which is false. QM states that light, electrons, and all fundamental particles exist not as  discrete point particles, but spread out as a wave. We can only describe the probability that they will be in a specific place at any moment, and that probability is the wave function. Particles, when free from interactions with other matter, actually behave like waves (see the double slit experiments).

But when a particle (whether of photon of light or an electron) interacts with other stuff they are no longer spread out but collapse down to a point particle. This is the wave-particle duality of matter. The collapse to a particle, however, is not dependent on any observer – just interaction with other stuff. No observer is necessary. When a photon from the sun strikes the earth and its energy is absorbed by a leaf on a tree in the middle of the jungle, it collapses to a particle. The same is true when it strikes a dead rocky asteroid out in space. Consciousness, and even life, is not necessary.

Next Chopra mangles quantum entanglement:

Scientists in France shot particles of light “photons” into a measuring apparatus, and showed that what they did — now, in the present — could retroactively change something that had already happened in the past. As the photons passed a fork in the apparatus, they had to decide whether to behave like particles or waves when they hit a beam splitter. Later on — well after the photons passed the fork — the experimenter could randomly switch a second beam splitter on and off electronically. It turns out that what the observer decided at that point, determined what the particle actually did at the fork in the past.

Yes, these experiments are fascinating. But they do not describe the future affecting the past, as Chopra misinterprets. They describe what is known as quantum entanglement. When particles are paired or linked in some way – for example when they are created by the same process – some of their properties are linked, even while still being in a wave of probability. For example, if one particle is spin up, the other will be spin down, even though their spin is not determined until much later, and even if the particles are separated by millions of light years at the time of the collapse of the wave function.

Physicists do not pretend to understand the fundamental nature of quantum entanglement – that is a Nobel prize waiting to be won. But it does not represent the future affecting the past. Nor does it represent faster than light, or instantaneous communication. Experiments have been done showing that it is impossible to transmit information faster than light using quantum entanglement. Information is not going faster than light, or into the past.

Chopra is using a common trick of the pseudoscientist – exploiting cutting edge science, which the public is not likely to understand, and pretend as if there is proof where there is uncertainty. Take some interesting experiments, then leap way ahead to conclusions that serve their metaphysical purposes, but which are not settled science.

In short – beware of anyone pretending to understand the ultimate implications of QM and that it supports their far out philosophy.

And here is Chopra’s woo philosophy:

It was only with the advent of quantum physics that scientists began to consider again the old question of the possibility of comprehending the world as a form of mind.

Indeed, the quantum theory implies that consciousness must exist, and that the content of the mind is the ultimate reality

The universe is a mind, and consciousness is the ultimate reality. Not surprisingly, a very Eastern philosophy, packaged nicely  for a Western audience.

Another false underlying assumption of Chopra, which he does not state expressly, is that all of this quantum weirdness (whatever its implications) applies to the macroscopic world. This is true, in a way (depending on how you look at it), but highly misleading. All objects, no matter how large, also are waves and particles. However, the wavelength of matter (the degree to which it is spread out, rather than having a definite position) decreases with mass and velocity. This is defined by the de Broglie equation:

λ = h/mv

Where λ is the wavelength, h is Planck’s constant, m is mass, and v is velocity. What this means is that when you start to get larger than a large molecule, the quantum wavelength shrinks to insignificance. When you get to macroscopic objects, the wavelength is orders of magnitude less than the size of elementary particles. So you have a wavelength, but it is so close to zero it can be treated as zero – which is another way of saying you do not behave like a quantum object, but like an object in classical physics.

Chopra, however, thinks that QM applies to everything equally. He writes:

If we do not look at it, the moon is gone. In this world, only an act of observation can confer shape and form to reality — to a dandelion in a meadow, or a seed pod, or the sun or wind or rain. Anyway, it’s amazing, and even your dog can do it too.

He is doubly wrong – not only is consciousness (an observer) not the thing that collapses wave functions, but QM effects do not apply to dandelions or moons (try shooting dandelions through a double slit experiment).

Another reason QM effects are not seen in the macroscopic world in which Chopra’s brain exists is decoherence. Remember that weird quantum entanglement I mentioned? Well, this can be observed only is carefully contrived experimental situations. It exists in nature, of course, but tends to be fleeting, because of decoherence. Whenever either paired particle interacts with other stuff in the universe, it becomes less entangled with its original partner, until they are decohered – their properties are no longer linked. It is hard to keep particles from decohering – in fact this is a stumbling block to the development of quantum computers that exploit QM effects. The particles keep decohering and losing their properties which can be used to store information.

For any macroscopic object, all the particles in that object are interacting with each other and decohering all the time. Again – the weird quantum world collapses to a classical physical world when you scale up to dandelions and people.

Chopra really needs to have a conversation with a real quantum physicist. You would think that before someone makes a career out of promoting a specific scientific interpretation to the public they would make sure they got the science right. But I suspect Chopra doesn’t care about getting the science right. He seems to be working backwards from his metaphysics, and then happily misinterpreting QM to suit his needs.

46 Responses to “Deepak Chopra Mangles Quantum Mechanics – Again”

  1. Max says:

    Chopra needs to run through a wall like Major General Stubblebine.
    As long as he doesn’t look at it, the wall is gone.

  2. Jens says:

    Maybe someone should shoot Chopra through a double slit…

  3. Michael B. says:

    Though I could fancy a pretty good guess *cough* blatant obscurantism *cough*, I wonder how Chopra defines the word “observe.”

  4. =^skepticat^= says:

    I haven’t run the calculations but I’m pretty sure that the quantum effect for something the size of the moon runs to one part in over a dozen orders of magnitude … Which is beyond negligible into the realm of the impossible.

    There are some reputable physicists who seem willing to explore quantum psycho-babble: Freeman Dyson, Roger Penrose and Brian Josephson just off the top of my head. Of course they don’t distort the science of it but rather hypothesize kind of exotic scenarios like “brain tubes” where extraordinary things can happen but never seem to.

  5. Max says:

    If people stop listening to Chopra, will he still make a sound?

  6. PadainFain says:

    I totally agree with your tearing apart of Chopra’s non-science but I should point out that QM isn’t as clear cut in its interpretation as you make out. Many-Worlds theories are the dominant theory-type over the Copenhagen Interpretation in recent years.

    The important distinction is that in CI the wave function is real and particles DO behave like waves but in MW the wave function is just a mathematical description of the lack of information about a system. The double slit is harder to explain in MW but Cat-in-a-box and EPR-Paradox are easier to explain than in CI.

    I’ve long thought CI was more logical but, after a conversation with Deutsch, and some long thought I’m a MW proponent now.

    Just thought it was worth point out because a MW interpretation makes Chopra’s non-science even more ridiculous because there is no uncertainty in nature, only uncertainty in knowledge about nature.

  7. Dan says:

    I once had the amusing pleasure- to hear Chopra give a speech. This was almost a decade ago, but he was spouting similar malarky. But he had an amazing “proof” – using “quantum physics,” as he described it – of the immortality of the human soul. It went something like this:

    “All of you know, of course, that we have been sending radio waves from earth ever since the dawn of that technology. Our signals – news broadcasts, television programs, everything – are traveling infinitely and outward, and are only waiting for some other life form out there to ‘tune’ them. They are permanent.”

    He then went on to make this brilliant analogy:
    “Just as there may be other life forms capable of tuning these signals, so is your body simply an instrument that tunes your everlasting soul. Before you were here, and after, there will be other instruments – human or otherwise – that will also capture the transmission that your soul is.”

    Absolutely stunning! The immortal, sacred human soul as a Gilligan’s Island rerun.

    Thomas Aquinas had nothing on this guy.

    • Sourav says:

      Dr. Mani Bhaumik said exactly the same thing regarding some tunes which would connect “us” to the “almighty God”(!)…

      That our tunes are perhaps not on the same frequency to the supreme,but someday,it will become one…It said something like this.

      dunno wat to say.:P

      I lost interest on the book after reading the preface…:(

  8. Padain – the discussion of CI vs MW is irrelevant to the points I was making about decoherence, the de Broglie wavelength,and the fact that quantum entanglement cannot be used to transmit information into the past or greater than the speed of light. You are talking about how to interpret these things, but regardless these experimentally verified features of QM invalidate Chopra’s nonsense.

    Another way to look at is is this – the same set of experiments that demonstrate QM also show it displays decoherence, etc. Chopra is just wrong about how QM works, regardless of the ultimate interpretation of what it means.

    • PadainFain says:

      I don’t disagree Steven about his inaccuracy, I merely wanted to point out that discussion of collapse of a wave function, as both he and you describe it, is necessarily a CI interpretation. In MW there is no collapse.

      Anyway I’m off to buy some Quantum Sniffers for my Iraqi roadblocks. :)

  9. Prof Farnsworth says:

    Deepak Chopra taught us quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason. Also, eat plenty of oatmeal and animals never had a war. Who’s the real animals?

  10. Michael says:

    Unfortunately there are plenty of quantum physicists who take essentially Chopra’s line. Penrose and others have been mentioned but they are mild compared to what some of the great figures in QM have thought — including that the collapse of a wave function can ONLY be caused by a conscious observer. John Wheeler’s view of things is in fact almost indistinguishable from Chopra’s — the only difference is that Wheeler knew what he was talking about in terms of the technicalities whereas Chopra is just plucking concepts from thin air.

  11. Katze says:

    Yes, there is always trouble with the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Also fellow physicists often fall into traps despite their education. A very good example is Schrödingers Cat. This ‘paradox’ was discussed decades ago when QM was new and physicist still struggled with the new theory – throwing over board their old world views and models. But now in modern times some physicists still think there is a real paradox. They really think that only a humans qualify as an observer. ;) Definately not a cat. But actually the keyword here is ‘interaction’. The cat is NOT dead and alive at the same time just because WE don’t know it. Actually, the cat is sitting in the box doing a measurement for us. ;) If we would replace the cat by a stop watch measuring the time when the decay happens (Slightly better setup: Beneficial for both, the cat and the physicist for the sake of a more precise measurment) and repeat the experiement a few 1000 times, then we would see a nice exponential dependency. There is no paradox, no mystery of micro and macro world. It is just plain, bread and butter, solid and self consistent physics. Some fellow particle physicists even go further and take this experiment as a starting point to speculate about parallel universes. But this is more fiction than science. I understand that most physicist do it just to inspire non-physicist but it is misleading. Even worse is the expression ‘God particle’. Also a creation of PR thinking physicist which does more harm than good.

    Yes, this contribution is somehow inspired by an interview in the SGU podcast. I like the podcast very much. But among the plenty interesting interviews there was was one I didn’t like. Exactly for the reason I gave above.

  12. Pete says:

    My chem professor once did the math for his assistant, the doorway, and the deBroglie equation, to show us how slowly Charlie would have to be moving to diffract. It was very slowly.

  13. MadScientist says:

    I’m always optimistic that any number of fine physicists from India or Pakistan would care to write that Deepak Chopra is full of crap. Unfortunately at this point in time no one can really claim that the East rejects all that eastern mysticism, but there are certainly many people throughout Asia who reject the ancient nonsense. I’d also be happy for any physician from India to write to say Deepak is peddling nonsense and that, for example, drinking cow pee won’t cure you of anything (except perhaps a bizarre thirst for cow pee).

  14. Kip Hawking says:

    You have set Dash Theory back a few decades. You have collapsed the en dash/em dash duality, threatening the grammatical fabric of your article and possibly our Universe.

  15. Paul0509 says:

    Recommended reading on the double-slit experiment: The famous Richard Feynman lecture series from his days at Cal Tech. In a nutshell: It is true that particles assume a superposition of quantum of states until their state is “observed”. But Feynman is very careful to explain exactly what is means to be observed. Observed means that the particle runs through an experiment such that its state is observable in principle according to the design of the experiment. Whether or not the researcher actually decides to look at the result is completely irrelevant to quantum physics. That is, unless the experimenter is some New Age hippie you see during pledge drive season wedged in between the Eagles reunion tour and a Fred Astaire biography.

  16. frags says:

    This is the key point in this article:

    Chopra is using a common trick of the pseudoscientist – exploiting cutting edge science, which the public is not likely to understand, and pretend as if there is proof where there is uncertainty. Take some interesting experiments, then leap way ahead to conclusions that serve their metaphysical purposes, but which are not settled science.

    Something which I see conmen using to sell their magical pendant(or whatever magical wares they seem to promote) that cures everything here in Asia. Twisting science to fit their own scheme of mumbo jumbo is common here.

    I suspect this phenomena has more to do about money than the truth.

  17. Kathryn says:

    Thank you for this topic. As someone who is somewhere between Deism and agnosticism I have been taking a close and critical look at some of the concepts that I have learned through certain New Thought/New Age teachings. I recently decided to revisit the movie Down the Rabbit Hole which is the primary source for teaching QM. My guess is that this is where Chopra is getting his information.

    The first time I saw the movie, I blew it off and labeled it as a bunch of left-brained heady men (and Ramtha) trying to turn a perfectly good feminized belief system into a rule bound, patriarchal religion. (sorry guys) But years later, the “science” is still around. I can’t even begin to tell you some of the bizarre theories I have heard from people as (what I believe is) a result of this movie.

    I would like to understand the real truth in a simple easily understood explanation. The comment “The collapse to a particle, however, is not dependent on any observer – just interaction with other stuff. No observer is necessary. ” is great simple and to the point. I totally understand it now.

    I think I have listened to several podcasts on this and other topics because the name Steven Novella is very familiar. What I would like to know is there any clear, simply stated point-by-point clarification/correction of the science that is presented by this Ramtha movie?—for someone who prefers the right side of the brain but willing to take a truthful look at the facts? I’m getting tired of some people saying stuff like quantum science has already proven this to be true. I’d like to have better information.


    • Max says:

      This will give you some idea where “WTF do we know” gets its information.

    • Max says:

      My question for New Agers is where’s the beef? What have they done with their profound knowledge? Developed any new technologies? Cured any diseases? Saved anyone by predicting a natural disaster? Demonstrated paranormal abilities to win James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge?
      Meanwhile, the transistors in your computer were engineered using quantum physics by people who actually understand something about it.

      • tmac57 says:

        Well, for one, the pushers of woo have ‘attracted’ millions of dollars to themselves a la ‘The Secret’.

    • MadScientist says:

      Ramtha? Now there’s an alleged alter ego I haven’t heard of for years.

  18. Kitapsiz says:

    This is great piece Dr. Novella.

    I have family who swear by this Chopra fellow. Personally, can’t stand to listen to his prattle, but that’s just me.

  19. Skeptisch says:

    Most of us are seekers. We hope to find our own little nirvana. We are often influenced by a personal experience so strong we are convinced it must be supernatural, supernatural in the sense of “not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws”. – So far so good.

    We have hundreds, probably thousands of ‘experts’ who are trying to teach us how to reach ‘their’ nirvana. Some of these teachers are clearly pretenders. Whether your own pope, guru, priest or pastor is a pretender is your own judgment call. These ‘authorities’ often disagree with each other, sometimes even violently. They cannot all be right. – Still no problem.

    But when these individuals recruit science to validate the misinformation they are spreading the scientific community gets upset. Often these people, these god men, never got close to a science 101 class. ‘Quantum physics’ is their favourite subject and ‘quantum’ their favoured word. From quantum healing, to quantum consciousness and quantum tea. But Quantum physics is the foundation of modern physics and is repeatable and extremely accurate.

    To pretend to use science for validating something that does not exist in the real world, is wrong. Science can only investigate the real world through the laws of physics; it can not investigate what does not exist. Until it can be demonstrated that there is something to use the scientific method on these pretending authorities should refrain from putting up that strawmen army and be fair and quiet.

  20. dissasterrus says:

    Fascinatingly, interference patterns appear to have been demonstrated in Macro !. Doesn’t make Chopra right of course.

    P.S. thks Dr Novella, really enjoy your blogging.

  21. Eta Carinae says:

    I must say I was pretty disappointed when I saw Michio Kaku interviewed by Chopra and Kaku only sat there and acknowledge Chopra’s flawed ideas about entanglement and quantum physics in general. And he went on with parallel universe and the possibility of Elvis being alive on one of them, only fueling the imagination of believers in pseudoscientific claims! I think Kaku did a great disservice to science there.

    But maybe I am being harsh to Kaku, maybe he didn’t know Chopra is a master or woo and the mistake he was making. Maybe.

    • Max says:

      What a cop-out that was. Maybe Kaku was trying to get listeners to buy his book, where they’d learn real science. But most of them won’t, and they’d be far better served by hearing a popular physicist tell Chopra to stop pretending that he knows squat about quantum physics. I think that would deflate Chopra’s ego a bit and make him think twice before pulling entangled quantum BS out of his butt.

  22. nikki moss says:

    I have read this whole thing. I am not defending Depok but Looks to me that the writings of the beliefs of Novilla inspired a rash of insulted egos and even anger. A forceful negativity if you will.
    I can’t understand why. As far as I can see a “proof” of something is nothing but a belief which of course is a lie. Not sure this can be understood by you guys but think about it. Its all made up..math art religion politics. All of it. Reality? war and peace.. There is much more than you can even imagine. It is so beautiful.

  23. Colly1 says:

    I can’t understand why skeptics, like athiests use misleading statements about their quarry eg which is basically the claim that QM is really weird, therefore magic is real.

    What are you scared of? If you don’t like something or disagree with it – don’t read or buy it.

    QM is not understood very well by ….anyone. It is far from Newtons apple and the finite understanding of that.

    Grow up – if not for Deepak Chopra, you wouldn’t have a stage – and that’s what this is all about. My ego is bigger than yours.

    You make me laugh – all of you serious jerks. There are real problems in the world too. Starvation, deprivation of freedom, human rights abuses, amongst the least.

    I do wonder how many of these commentators were white – like the picture above. Deepak isn’t – maybe that’s teh problem – maybe not – who knows where ‘entanglement’ will lead us.

  24. Rafael says:

    “Experiments have been done showing that it is impossible to transmit information faster than light using quantum entanglement.”
    Could I please get a link to an article, I can’t find it anywhere. I’m trying to prove someone wrong.

  25. logicalmalism says:

    cant you transmit information from your self to yourself instantly…faster than the speed of light? if you have a genuine thought, then the passing of info across a synapse is sent by you but then there is a delay for you to receive it? im not a scientist clearly im an average slob but i was just thinking

  26. logic says:

    There are various schools of thought within this motif. The premise is as follows. If QM is as cutting edge as which many misguided idiots proclaim. Simply prove it. Science at the moment is simply crap and primitive. Its all talk at the moment. Where are the breakthroughs “primitive medicines?” “Outdated – laughable technologies” I could go on an on. A true scientist will come up with the facts and prove his theories… QM is basic metaphysics… what a joke. Science is a joke… no one has all the answers and I wish you guys did… but hey if scientists are as smart as they profess maybe one day they will make a true contribution instead of attack anothers belief system whilst they get annoyed that some “guy” that has a different belief system to you is earning ten times more money and enjoying his life – whilst the egg head scientist – begs for grants and does not get paid a tenth… where is the science behind that?

  27. logic says:

    Whilst I spend my time on this site… trying to redefine some idiots inferiority complex about Deepak whom I have no interest in at all. 80% of the world is living in extreme poverty, foolishness and wars are occuring, human life, and native animal life is being destroyed, environmental concerns and you are annoyed that Deepak has a 2.5 million dollar house and a Jaguar…. lol… get a life. What if I was a garbage collector and had a 3 million dollar house – would you be annoyed.

    Look into the so called garbage mysteries that you sledge and you shall find you were an initiate of them… but given basic knowledge… for money for a seal of approval.. a uni ver setis. Grow up and use that knowledge of yours to assist people instead of standing on others…

    Would you be happy if others created a hate site about you… judging everything you do and believe? I seriously doubt it.

  28. Julia says:

    I just watched a video that supports your statement

    What a con artist!

  29. Bob Tallon says:

    Whats it all about who the hell cares if Chopra is stretching the facts as they now exist about quantum mechanics into some hope and peace for a few folks. The scientists who unlock all this knowledge always seem to be able to live with the bombs and destruction created from new technology along with the advancements. THis I do know there will never be a total complete theory on everything and if there is it will have holes ,exceptions, and variances that make it able to be circumvented. We do not even know where we go in sleep and death but we have all the answers, ego has no end desire never stops the very fabric of creation is an endless progression of infinite feed back loops disappearing into infinity to reemerge from nothing. How the hell do you get a handle on that. Chopra is creating a new paradigm in religious context that unites, bending some science in a way that feels right stop worrying about it. I ask anyone on their death bed to tell me they got it all figured out and ask if they would not kiss Chopra,s back side for some vague certainty at the end.

  30. Skeptic says:

    Wondering about the effect of the discovery of a boson particle (possibly as described by Higgs) on discussion of such things as Linda McTaggert’s book, ‘The Field’.

  31. Drop of water says:

    If everything is absolute there is nothing to implicatel if nothing is absolute there is no utimate implication ( relative only). There is nothing in between which is empty. Be or not to Be. Be who you wanted to be and be the change you want to see. I give thumb to all, as contridiction is fuel to creation.