Bohr, Dirac, Planck, Heisenberg et al vs the ‘Law of Attraction’

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medLast week there was a post on the ‘Change Your Life’ blog (down in my links list) inviting readers to have their say about the ‘law of attraction’. Fact or fancy?

I posted a short comment, but there’s a lot more that I could say. I did physics before I swung into the arts. (My niece doesn’t call me ‘Uncle Sheldon’ for nothing).

The ‘law of attraction’ was made popular a few years ago in The Secret, a book by an Australian author. I did read it. As far as I can tell, what you desire is attracted to you via this ‘law’ which, apparently, works by ‘quantum physics’. Apparently thoughts create ‘vibrations’. Positive thoughts create more powerful ‘vibrations’ than negative, travel further, and so attract the desired object or outcome to the individual. If it doesn’t happen, it’s because the person making the wish didn’t have enough desire for what they wanted.

It is, of course, gibberish. As I understand it, the ‘law of attraction’ not only violates macro-level physics – specifically, the Second Law of Thermodynamics – it also violates the real laws of quantum physics. As a friend of mine pointed out, quantum physics is stochastic – that is, it’s about probabilities at scales below the Planck length, which is 1.616199×10-35  metres.  Kind of small.

By contrast, the ‘law of attraction’ is deterministic and operates in terms of abstract human desires.

Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

Niels Bohr in 1922. Public domain, from Wikipedia.

This is something that has always bemused me – how so much that is actually metaphysical can be attributed to ‘quantum physics’. I know Einstein called it ‘spooky’, but it’s not THAT spooky! The principles are well established. Subatomic objects are waves and particles – the duality is an artefact of our classical physics approach; the blend is the closest we can come to defining what the subatomic object actually is. It’s possible to determine EITHER velocity OR position of this ‘wavicle’. Work by various physicists in the early twentieth century – Dirac, Heisenberg, Planck, Bohr and others – explored how the universe worked if the positions and velocities of the particles that made it up were indeterminate – if they existed as probabilities, not discrete and defineable numbers. It was utterly counter-intuitive. But it was also entirely about probabilities at subatomic level.

The cause of the ‘new age’ version, as far as I can tell, came out of a misunderstanding of Heisenberg and Schroedinger’s efforts to describe how a watching human might see the ‘spookiness’. This was then conflated with the problem of observational interference – that is, an effort to observe or detect a quantum event collapses the probabilities to a single outcome. This led to the idea that human consciousness causes the outcome. However, in real quantum physics, no human consciousness or personal observation is required. This was proven by experimental demonstration using a machine ‘observer’ as far back as 1998. Here’s the link.

To me real quantum physics is amazing enough without making it apparently magical as well. As for the ‘law of attraction’? Hokum. People get what they want because they work to achieve it.  Affirmations and visualisations can be part of the journey , helping direction – a motivation, a spur to happiness – but they don’t create anything of themselves. Only our own actions do that. I think people need to have faith in themselves, in their own abilities – and to be proud of what they achieve. To accept that they get what they want through their own efforts – which to me is a far, far more rewarding result than wish fulfilment.

What are your thoughts on this?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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12 comments on “Bohr, Dirac, Planck, Heisenberg et al vs the ‘Law of Attraction’

  1. KM Huber says:

    While I am fascinated by physics and in particular, quantum entanglement, I know my understanding is extremely limited. I am in complete agreement with you regarding the law of attraction and The Secret–oh my to both–along with the borrowing from science, I wonder if there was not a bit of re-interpreting of some of the ancient eastern traditions, specifically the idea of intention, as I understand it from the Buddhist,Taoist, and Vedic traditions. Again, my understanding of these traditions is limited.

    Yet, as I understand intention (within the three traditions), it is a future outcome that is dependent upon the focus or attention one gives in the present such as completing a task to achieve a goal, like a writer writing one scene after another. I do know that many of the current teachers of the three traditions I mention have had a word or two to say about the law of attraction as well as The Secret, and the ones I read all reach your conclusion: hokum.

    Great post, Matthew!

    Karen

    • Quantum entanglement’s definitely one of the more interesting parts of the whole quantum thing.. I find the whole territory interesting not just for itself, but because of the way ‘quantum physics’ has been received outside the physics community. The way it’s been interpreted, re-interpreted, and worked into many philosophies, to me, gives an insight into some of the ways humanity thinks.

  2. Interesting discussion topic. I’m not sure everything is as cut and dried as you present it. I am certainly no follower of ‘The Secret’ – information that is presented for the lowest common denominator. I am also gloriously over the fiendish pitching of the new-age gurus to convince us that a marvellously fantastical life awaits all of us if we only do x, y, and z. However (if I could put italics here I would), I believe it’s a horribly arrogant mistake to assume that we have everything worked out, that the world and all it’s curiosities can be boxed up and explained. Humans beings don’t like mystery, doubt and anomaly. We like certainty, surety and security. We are continuously regimenting, organising and rationalising. Mystery, intuition, magic and imagination – all horribly disliked by those who like to explain everything – are utterly necessary to all forms of science. So, without writing an essay in response, my position is this: The Secret is tosh that has disappointed many. The universe, on the other hand, is mysterious, inviting, magical and full of deliciously unexplained phenomena, like consciousness. Long may it remain so.

    • Actually, I agree. I didn’t particularly discuss this in the post, but I think a lot of the ‘mystic’ thinking is simply an effort to explain the unexplainable – because, as you say, humans like explanations. We are conditioned to look for ‘final’ or ‘definitive’ answers. Actually, we live in a universe of mystery – the more we know, scientifically, the more we discover there is to know, and the more mysteries emerge. Look at ‘dark matter’ (well, don’t look at it, if you get what I mean…) It’s axiomatic that we can never fully understand something of which we are a part. Like consciousness. And the universe. What’s more, it was J B S Haldane, I think, who said ‘the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine’. I think he was right. And I agree, it is the unknown that makes everything so interesting. Imagine how boring things would be if we knew everything!

    • Pollyanna, I believe you are very correct in saying that The Secret is presented as the lowest common denominator. But I also believe that it is a doorway for people to walk through. It allows them to shake off all their firm, calloused views of how the World and the Universe work. Without walking through that doorway they would remain in darkness and never see things differently.

      Like Matthew said, the Universe IS stranger than we can imagine, but since we are imagining/creating/experiencing all of this – TOGETHER – perhaps we should begin to imagine and create something better. It begins on a personal level. Each of us has to begin to change individually to make our world a better place and then instead of WAITING for change to come to us we need to BE the change. This is how I have come to see it and The Secret was the first step on my journey. It by no means scraps the surface of this personal transformation. It alone is not the answer. I pray these words will help you on your Way.

  3. I think quantum entanglement or ‘spooky action at a distance’ will solve the whole problem of interstellar space travel – we will ‘bring’ far away places to our bit of the solar system – or create a very realistic simulations of them that means we don’t need to bother will conventional travel…

    • Some work done recently indicated entanglement could occur on larger scales than previously thought. Unfortunately it also occurs for shorter times. It’s possible, I guess, that it is a function of scale and – while it may well occur on our everyday scale – it’s so fleeing as to be undetectable. That said, it would be great if we would make it work. The whole universe would, literally, be at our fingertips – and wouldn’t that be just fantastic!

  4. Great topic! I am a very objective thinker, and I like to look at thing from as many angles as possible. That’s my issue with modern physics, where Einstien genuinely wanted to learn and absorb as much possible during his short lifetime, looking at life through all different views, I find modern physicians adopt a theory, and try to explain everything by it. Just because something cannot be measured, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We just haven’t found the formula or method yet in my opinion. As our human minds and knowledge progress, we’ll be able to explain that which is unexplainable now. Just look at how much more knowledge we’ve gained over the past 50 years, versus hundreds of years before!

  5. [...] – mainly photographs I’ve taken. More humour, stuff about Tolkien, music and more science geekery. I think science is pretty cool. And [...]

  6. SoundEagle says:

    Thank you, Matthew! SoundEagle did physics and quantum mechanics too in my engineering days. Many new age believers tend to make a mockery of quantum physics and co-opt the discipline to fit their worldviews. Some of them even attempt to explain intuition, clairvoyance, metaphysics, homeopathy, telepathy and other ESPs with quantum events, quantum foams and string theory. Even the popular and entertaining film “What The Blip Do We Know” is quite problematic.

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