I’ve been postponing seriously taking on Amit Goswami’s book about Evolution for a while, but it cannot be postponed any longer. The long and short of it is: I have mixed feelings about it. I admire the effort, but the way it’s done isn’t entirely to my taste.
Since the author is a quantum physicist, I should perhaps start with my issues about the underlying quantum mechanics. First off: I’m very glad to see someone take on the logical consequences of quantum mechanics for our world view. It’s tempting to stick with Newtonian physics, but let’s face it: it’s outdated. And physicists have gone too long without trying to explain their craft to ordinary people or even themselves. I had some very smart friends when I studied chemistry in college and they were very happy to not understand what the formula said, as long as they knew how to use them in their calculations (I think most of them must be scientists by now).
This never seemed like a reasonable option to me. And if physicists and theoretical chemists refuse to explain these things, they can’t blame others for trying or for facing up to the philosophical consequences of quantum physics.
Unfortunately though, I think Amit Goswami oversteps his bounds a bit. He doesn’t do much quantum physics in this book – after all, it’s about evolution – but what he does give is just not all right. I’ve learned some quantum physics in college and it just doesn’t jive with what I’m reading here.
Schrödinger’s cat. It’s probably the most famous of quantum experiments – or thought experiments, because there’s no ethical way of doing this experiment. But the point of the experiment is that until observed, the cat is BOTH alive and dead. Goswami goes one step further and suggests that it’s the observer that CHOOSES whether the cat’s alive or dead. So it would make a difference to the cat if the observer were a cat lover: more chance of being alive. And that if there were two observers there’d be a theoretical problem. But the way I’ve always understood the experiment is different: it’s the ACT of observing that does it, not the choosing of the outcome.
However, and this is where it gets interesting: this experiment does make it clear that there’s an explicit duality in quantum physics of observer and observed. This duality cannot be resolved by saying what most scientists say: that all is matter. Even though, the observer contains matter too. The thing is: something CHOOSES to observe or not to observe. That fundamental choice has – Amit Goswami suggests this convincingly in my opinion – created the universe. That is: the wave of possibilities didn’t collapse till there was life to observe it – and that explains why this universe fits life so perfectly.
How do more conventional physicists explain this? They say that a combination of chance and the laws of physics are at play here. No guiding intelligence wanting to express itself, but chance and luck.
Critics of the quantum spiritual approach say that Goswami has reduced God to a being that plays with dice. They have a point: God is Universal Consciousness in Amit Goswami’s world. And universal consciousness doesn’t do all that much, except at crucial moments choose among the available outcomes. In other words: where physicists see chance, Goswami sees the guiding hand of God. But only there – Goswami acknowledges that evolution selects and prunes what is chosen by consciousness. He acknowledges that consciousness sometimes chooses evolutionary dead ends.
Crucially though – this God plays by the rules of science, but is also the ground of the universe: because consciousness came FIRST, according to this quantum spiritual view.
So far, so good – but it does remind me of what one of my philosophy of religion teachers said when we were discussing God and science. He said: if you choose a God of the holes (the holes in science that is), your God is always retreating. In other words: is this God of Amit Goswami merely a way of explaining what science can’t yet explain, or is it a valid scientific interpretation? Although I think fundamentally Goswami’s theory doesn’t clash with quantum physics as scientists understand it, I’m also not sure it’s quite capable of uniting biology the way he seems to hope.
I hope to go into the biology of Quantum Physics in another blogpost.