Sunday, March 11, 2007

Some good debunking

There were a couple of times at the Beyond Belief 2006 conference when something was said that I wish I could package for New Age believers, one about “quantum consciousness” and another about studies promoting prayer. I’ve tried to make these points to some fellow liberals before, without obvious success. I’d rather have someone else say them from here on out, so here are a couple of examples of that.

Stuart Hameroff was speaking about quantum physics in consciousness. Hameroff is the anesthesiologist who is partner with mathematician Roger Penrose in promoting this idea. Hameroff spoke of many things, including how he thought microtubules went through state changes due to “quantum forces” and how “quantum entanglement” provided coherence over the brain.

The quantum force I studied as an undergraduate in physics was the electromagnetic force. Why aren’t people who talk about quantum consciousness specific about that? One could make detailed calculations about how electromagnetism would be affecting a microtubule. Maybe Penrose has done that, but here there’s just hand waving and suspiciously vague talk instead of focusing on the perfectly concrete issue of what force is meditating this phenomenon of consciousness.

There were physicists in the audience. One was Lawrence Krauss. Krauss had a simple comment, “From a physics perspective, everything you say is nonsense, and maybe I’m being too polite.” Among objections Krauss raised was how limited entanglement is as an observed phenomenon.

There is no doubt that there is a connection between what the front of the brain does and what the back of the brain does. One can imagine that the quantum mechanical term “entanglement” relates to this, but using that word is to turn it into metaphor, the same way “energy” is often used in a spiritual context. It’s not the physical meaning of those words that can make sense in the brain the way New Age thinkers use them.

Then Richard Sloan gave a talk about studies of prayer in medicine. He showed how claims of long lists of these whittle down to a small number that are actually studies. Then that number is reduced all the way to four by requiring a good study design. If there is any real benefit in these, it’s small. God is not moving heaven and Earth in response to these prayers for the sick.

My own impression is that there never have been physical miracles. That’s been the result of looking at case histories of purported miraculous healing of individuals and always finding a problem in them, whether a likely mistaken diagnosis, a treatment other than prayer, or some other gap in the story. Nature always has been at work as it is today. I find plenty of reasons to pray from the direction, strength and comfort I have received from God over the years, but those don’t require physical miracles.

Prayer studies have results that match the above much better than the idea that prayer work through nature.

Many people believe otherwise, whether those are conservatives who believe God controls everything, New Age thinkers who believe they could control everything with the right knowledge or atheists who believe prayer does nothing. Some people believe that quantum physics explains consciousness, with benefits that I have trouble exploring because it is such nonsense. It is a difficult thing to keep an open mind. There may not be an atheist on the planet who is interested in how my experiences led me to believe there is a God. I’m sure I would lose most of them with my first sentence on that subject. But I would hope that I could write this story in a way that lets someone understand the possibility that there is a God.

Stories like quantum consciousness and that there are supposedly many positive studies on prayer don’t seem to be told by those who know their subject. They are quickly debunked as pseudoscience by someone who knows mainstream quantum physics or mainstream medical research. The method of that is no different from debunking creationist arguments against evolution. One exposes the botched definitions, the false premises, the analysis which ignores all data that goes the other way, and a pervading bias in even other ways. Yet it’s never enough to reduce the conflict to its essence, that we don’t know that much about consciousness or God. We do know that evolution is a fact. We do know some things, but people find hope in less certain things. I do. I find hope in a God that I’ve experienced.

Sam Harris doesn’t understand why my God is different from Poseidon. I would tell him how Poseidon is a force of nature who cares nothing about me while my God loves me in ways I can detail, but are not objective. It’s not practical for me to try to do that. It’s not practical for me to try to explain why I don’t believe the stories many other people tell, especially when they include points that are objective such as whether consciousness relates to quantum physics or prayer has done great things physically. Everyone deals with such stories one by one. How many get far enough with that?

When I was in grade school I occasionally played chess with a boy who was more serious about it than I was. A few times he played with his huge book of chess openings on his lap. He followed the book until I did something not in the book, because it was a stupid move. Then he’d try to see why it was a stupid move. He always did. Then he’d win.

Maybe the internet can become a better repository of ideas than we have had to date. If someone brings up anything on quantum consciousness, they could get a good refutation of the idea at the same time. That could work for the more objective things. When it comes to hearing the voice of God, this seems less likely to work. God doesn’t speak to me through a computer screen, through another person, in a strange language or even with strange concepts. He speaks through me in a way I understand, in ways that provide me with direction, strength and comfort, as they have for 18 years. It’s not a stupid move to listen to Him. I decided before I took this seriously that either it’s really God or it’s something in my brain that I need to be God. Either way, it works for me. But there are other things out there that are definitely stupid moves. I’m glad some people point those out.

No comments: