Making Demands of the Foundation of All Being

By Sean Carroll | February 26, 2007 2:13 pm

Quote of the Day: David Albert, philosopher of science at Columbia. He was interviewed for, and appeared in, What the Bleep Do We Know?, the movie that tried to convince people that quantum mechanics teaches us that we can change physical reality just by adjusting our mental state. After seeing the travesty that was the actual movie, he complained loudly and in public that his views had been grossly distorted; this quote is from one such interview.

It seems to me that what’s at issue (at the end of the day) between serious investigators of the foundations of quantum mechanics and the producers of the “what the bleep” movies is very much of a piece with what was at issue between Galileo and the Vatican, and very much of a piece with what was at issue between Darwin and the Victorians. There is a deep and perennial and profoundly human impulse to approach the world with a DEMAND, to approach the world with a PRECONDITION, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE FOUNDATION OF ALL BEING, is some powerful and reassuring and accessible image of OURSELVES. That’s the impulse that the What the Bleep films seem to me to flatter and to endorse and (finally) to exploit – and that, more than any of their particular factual inaccuracies – is what bothers me about them. It is precisely the business of resisting that demand, it is precisely the business of approaching the world with open and authentic wonder, and with a sharp, cold eye, and singularly intent upon the truth, that’s called science.

Read the whole thing. The use of emphases is characteristic of David’s writing style, which is also on display in his fantastic books on quantum mechanics and the arrow of time.

The only really misleading part of the above quote is choosing “the Victorians” as Darwin’s foil; things haven’t changed all that much, sadly.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Philosophy, Religion, Science
  • John Branch

    Somewhere in Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, there’s a remark to the effect that what man is really looking for in the universe is not some other form of life but only a mirror of himself. I had never seen a statement quite like that (not that I can claim to do very much reading) until encountering this paragraph from David Albert. Thanks for posting it.

  • andy.s

    The names of the talking Heads in a documentary never stick in my memory.

    Good thing too; if I had remembered him from his segment in WTB? I never would bothered to pick up his excellent book “Quantum Mechanics and Experience”.

    WTB? was hilariously idiotic. I remember them talking about how happy thoughts will influence the arrangement of water molecules and proving it by showing a bunch of blown-up photographs of snow flakes.

    The central thesis of New Age beliefs is that Wishful Thinking works. The evidence always requires a hefty dose of it to believe.

  • Elliot

    I followed the link. From my reading it appears that Prof. Albert claims that there is a consensus understanding of the philosphical substrate of QM. That would be news to me as I have considered this an unresolved issue.


  • nc

    Dr David Albert is right about science being about taking an unprejudiced approach, instead of placing the human at the centre of the universe and trying to “explain” ESP by mental vacuum state speculation.

    I wonder what Dr Albert thinks of Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Josephson’s paper

    Physics, abstract

    String Theory, Universal Mind, and the Paranormal
    Authors: Brian D. Josephson

    A model consistent with string theory is proposed for so-called paranormal phenomena such as extra-sensory perception (ESP). Our mathematical skills are assumed to derive from a special ‘mental vacuum state’, whose origin is explained on the basis of anthropic and biological arguments, taking into account the need for the informational processes associated with such a state to be of a life-supporting character. ESP is then explained in terms of shared ‘thought bubbles’ generated by the participants out of the mental vacuum state. The paper concludes with a critique of arguments sometimes made claiming to ‘rule out’ the possible existence of paranormal phenomena.

    This is nicely illustrated by a Garfield cartoon at

  • Quasar9

    Hi Sean, I haven’t read his book (yet)
    But, what is your take on the arrow of Time.
    I am inclined to ‘believe’ there is an arrow of Time.
    That we cannot rewind Time (like on film, video or DVD) and, it would be peculiar to see people and cars walking backwards or rain pouring skyward – or fast forward.

    We cannot ‘travel’ back in Time, after all even if we could travel at the speed of light and lived for a 163,000 years – it is unlikely that Supernova 1987A would have stood still waiting for us. We would still arrive there in 163,000 years Time or 326,000 years after the event took place.

  • Doug Natelson

    Wow. The text style makes me think of Robert McElwaine. That’s not a good thing, and doesn’t make me want to rush out and by the book.

  • Ponder Stibbons


    Albert isn’t saying there aren’t any philosophical problems with QM, but that the idea that QM in some way undermines the mechanistic project and leaves room for spiritual forces and stuff like that has been largely agreed to be nonsense. I have only a passing acquaintance with the philosophy of quantum mechanics, but I believe there is a consensus that mechanism does not imply determinism, and hence quantum indeterminacy does not undermine that view. Roughly speaking, mechanism entails only that all natural phenomena can be explained by physical causes. Whether the laws that underlie these causes are deterministic is a different matter.

  • Ponder Stibbons


    I agree with you about Albert’s style of writing. I read Time and Chance and while the philosophy in it was interesting and the arguments were clear, his over-enthusiastic italicising of words to emphasise them (in the link he capitalises them instead) got rather annoying after a while.

  • Pingback: Our place in the Universe « Late Night Wanderings()

  • TomC

    Nothing to add to the debate other than that I took David’s class based on an early version of QM and Experience as a German Lit major at Columbia in 1991, and it was a significant factor in getting me excited about science again. (I had been a math/science geek in high school and strayed from the fold. I’m 100% back now, as a postdoc in observational cosmology at Chicago.) I’d highly recommend the book (and the class, if David still teaches it) to anyone curious about the topic, scientists and laypeople alike.

  • Moshe

    I see that Doug above already beat me to it, but this writing style is incredible, and not in a good way. Are his books really written this way, all the way through? because I was thinking about picking one of them up at some stage…

  • Ponder Stibbons


    Time and Chance is, as I said above. Italics are somewhat less irritating that CAPS, but not much. I think it’s still worth reading though.

  • Moshe

    Ponder, sorry, I missed your previous comment. I feel that as a reader I should have a final say on what parts of the text are important, but maybe I’ll get over it…

  • tyler

    What an interesting little post. I learned a lot. Such as:

    – Prof. Josephson gets to post whatever he wants to the arxiv. Prof. Josephson is a very fine Science Fiction writer, and I enjoy his speculations almost as much (and in the same spirit) as I have enjoyed surfing the PEAR website from time to time, but this was a bit surprising.

    – Dr. Albert is yet another clever, insightful scientist that can’t write worth a damn. Thanks for saving me from the disappointment of buying an unreadable text! Dear smart people: editors are your friends. Listen to them.

    – Stanislaw Lem, as usual, expresses succinctly what other smart people take whole books to convey.

    – scientists hate What the Bleep. Wait! I knew that. I can’t bring myself to watch it – I’m still traumatized by The Tao of Physics, and that was 15 years ago – so I will continue under my current assumption, which is that working QM physicists probably understand QM and its implications better than the vapid New Age muffinheads I’m so familiar with as a resident of Oregon.

    On a more serious note, I think the unfortunate tendency towards metaphysical quasi-solipsism that Sean correctly calls on the carpet is the natural result of people having experiences which lead them to believe, rational scientific thought notwithstanding, that an inner part of their being is best described by the old and value-loaded term “soul.” Having had such experiences myself, I can say that they are somewhat disorienting, and hard to reconcile with consensus reality. These experiences are quite common and do have a sort of universal quality to them, the sort of thing that can make one feel that one’s own existence is somehow central to the world’s, in a kind of ontological anthropic principle I suppose.

    The need to identify oneself with something larger or central to reality is largely just another psychological reflex of aversion to the fear of death – which doesn’t mean there isn’t some real basis to the “soul” experience – just that I think it is being misinterpreted. These poor folks have had experiences that they can’t explain, so they’re looking for a framework to hang them on, to make sense of what’s happening. To their credit, I suppose, they at least try to look for what they think are scientific explanations, only to run into this misguided gibberish.

    I myself place such experiences in more or less the same bin as dark energy: there seems to be something real happening, I have no idea what it is, I see no reason to think that its cause or operational modality is contrary to physics as we currently understand it, and I’m aware that I might be operating on faulty data or assumptions somewhere along the line and the whole experience could be illusory. I’m also very comfortable with unexplained phenomena; it doesn’t trouble me to file things under the We Don’t Know Yet category and leave them there until a solid hypothesis is put forward. I’ve been aware for a long time that most people are not like me in this regard.

    I would assume that if there is any reality to the concept known as a soul, it is most likely an emergent property of the universe, like life itself. But We Don’t Know Yet.

  • mtraven

    Great post, and great comment by Tyler above. Very clarifying.

    Let me muddy the waters a bit — there is the physical world, which the hard sciences study, and the mental/social/cultural world, which is indeed part of and emergent from the physical world but is also in some sense a separate sphere, striving for independence from its physical substrate. This is the world people spend most of their time in, even physicists. In this world, people ARE the central and most important feature.

    The relationship between these two worlds is hard to understand and What the Bleep sounds like an example of how NOT to think about it clearly.

  • Jack

    Sean — is Albert’s book about the arrow of time all that great? Doesn’t he just say that there must be a law of nature which dictates that entropy had to be low at the beginning of the universe? A valid point, but nothing new, right?

  • dm

    The problem is that reality (whatever that is) cannot be separated from your conciousness. Not to mention the problem of why you are you, and not someone else (which is the first question you are confronted with after rejecting solipsism).

  • Flash Starwalker

    Garrett Moddel at U. Colorado has an interesting idea about this.

  • Flash Starwalker

    I guess I should say more. Garrett gave a talk at the AAAS meeting at UCR in June 2006. I think he is head of the electrical engineering department at Boulder? Anyway I think he said that if you make a measurement there is always a signal transmission and that the entropy of the system measured (the receiver) decreases whilst the entropy of the sender increases i.e. the cost of making the measurement.

    OK, I started reading Hawking and Ellis on the deSitter dark energy universe.
    Fig 19 p. 130 (paperback) The observer O has both a finite future event horizon and a past event horizon. Using the general idea of Wheeler and Feynman, if advanced light signals went from the future horizon back to the past horizon, then the future horizon should have the large entropy ~(Lp^2/)^-1/2 ~ 10^122 in Bekenstein bits and the past event horizon’s entropy should be small, i.e. one Bekenstein bit pre-inflation. So at some point we need to sew dark energy deSitter metric to the inflation metric to get this idea to work. It’s only a rough half-baked idea at this point that retrocausality explains the arrow of time, i.e. why the early universe has small entropy and the future universe has large entropy. Thus the universe bootstraps itself into being and becoming by a kind of Novikov globally self-consistent loop in time, but from the future deSitter horizon. This is not the same as Gott’s model.

  • Simon DeDeo

    At the risk of sounding like a nut, take Alpert’s statement, where he complains about:

    1. “what has got to turn out to lie at THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE FOUNDATION OF ALL BEING, is some powerful and reassuring and accessible image of OURSELVES.”

    One could easily rephrase this to describe physics today:

    2. “what has got to turn out to lie at THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE, that what has got to turn out to lie at THE FOUNDATION OF ALL BEING, is some powerful and reassuring and accessible image of MATHEMATICAL OBJECTS.”

    It’s the old “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” problem. I think #2 has gotten us a lot farther than #1 in terms of enriching exciting stuff, but I think it’s important to be clear that what physicists do at heart is no more metaphysically justified than what crazy people do.

  • Neil B.

    Excuse me, but you shouldn’t assume that what someone else says is an assumption. For example, we have found out, not assumed, that the universe’s constants are just what they need to be to be life-friendly (e.g., the dimensionless fine structure constant, just sticking out there at around 1/137 “appropos of nothing” in logical terms, but just right for us or other thinking creatures.) This is often met with hypocritical claims of a massive undetectable and theoretically baseless other universes with different laws, something that would be pilloried if it wasn’t “politically” useful to those attacking the anthropic principle outlined above. And, why stop with things like a universe, why not reified Road Runner cartoons, heavens and hells, etc? What runs the actualizing of the possible? If modal realists are right, we have minimal Bayesian chance of being in a consistent possible world that has all the same electron masses, theoretically satisfying force laws, etc, because there is no inner “virtus” or law giver to define such sensibility. Every describable pattern of motion and relation is viable, and “exists” somehow. There are many more possible images for example that start out patterned and then fall apart, than continue in like manner throughout. To have order goes even beyond the luck of the right “constants” into the near impossible. There is a reason for it being orderly; that I think has to do with what order allows to be.

    Furthermore, the quantum situation really is weird. Really, what does come out of an electron or photon emitter? What happens to “that” when the particle is localized? Decoherence doesn’t even deal with the simple basics of collapse of a given single emission, nor can it deal with the much neglected Renninger negative-result experiment. (If a reliable detector show that a particle was *not* absorbed at a particular point, then the wave function must be redistributed accordingly. For example, all of it now in one leg of a split beam course. Yes, it isn’t just “detection” that collapses the wave function…) Great minds like von Neumann thought of consciousness being involve in QM because we just can’t make it comprehensible or sensible on its own, not from narcissm.

  • ken

    Is there anything in physics that deals with the concept of “now”? Relativity seems to deal with the simultaneity of possible “nows”, but not the concept of an actual “now”, which is fundamental to conciousness.

  • Pingback: What the bleep does David Albert know?, 2007-03-03 « Skeptigator()

  • Pingback: It Does Matter What People Think About How the World Works | Cosmic Variance()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar