Re: FW: MD Dawkins on quantum/mysticism convergence

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Sun Mar 17 2002 - 15:38:49 GMT

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    From: "Grant Callaghan" <>
    Subject: Re: FW: MD Dawkins on quantum/mysticism convergence
    Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2002 07:38:49 -0800
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    >Subject: Re: FW: MD Dawkins on quantum/mysticism convergence
    >Date: Sun, 17 Mar 2002 06:02:16 EST
    >In a message dated 3/17/2002 3:24:55 AM Central Standard Time, Douglas
    >Brooker <> writes:
    > > > >Hi Douglas.
    > > > >
    > > > >My earlier use of the phrase "the ineffable Quantum of being"
    > > > >a few months ago was also in reference to some of the mystical
    > > > >interpretations of quantum mechanics.
    > > > >
    > > > > > and memetics is a science?
    > > > >
    > > > >Just suppose that Eastern mysticism got attached to quantum
    > > > >physics in the early days, so that a substantial fraction of
    > > > >the physicists reading their first quantum physics books were
    > > > >asked to swallow a lot of mysticism. The word "quantum"
    > > > >would have gained a very bad reputation among serious
    > > > >physicists.
    > > > >
    > > > > > sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.
    > > > >
    > > > >Perhaps this is the old strategy of the best defense
    > > > >being a good offense.
    > > > >
    > > > >
    > > > Dawkins is right on the money. "Quantum" seems to be a popular
    > > to
    > > > attach to a lot of goofy ideas making them more trendy in pop
    > > s
    > > > like a vague allusion to QM has hybridized with various kooky pet
    > >
    > >
    > > The migration of a word from a narrow scientific context to a much
    > > one would seem to be a
    > > perfect subject for memetics. One one extreme, the physicists; one the
    > > other,
    > > the 'kooky pet theories'.
    > >
    > > Question 1: describe the migration (or expansion) of the use of
    > > "quantum."
    > > Question 2: explain the migration
    >Contagious mysticism goes way, way back. Adding
    >pseudo-justifications in terms of "quantum" theory increases the
    >transmissivity, receptivity, and longevity in a more scientific and
    >technological society. People are more willing to express their
    >ideas if they think (rightly or wrongly) that they have scientific
    >legitimacy, such as might be conferred by a basis in quantum
    >Listeners can be more receptive to such messages too. Since
    >few people have any serious knowledge of quantum mechanics,
    >they often defer to the other person as the "expert" if that person
    >is referring to quantum physics. This confers receptivity.
    >Longevity might also be increased due to refutation-resistance.
    >Again, most people do not know enough about quantum
    >mechanics to effectively challenge misbeliefs about its
    >implications. Even those who do have such knowledge know
    >that it could take a very long time to explain, so that they
    >often do not even bother trying. Moreover, people with credentials
    >in physics can be bought by or sell out to mystical movements in
    >need of a credibility boost. Adding science and technology
    >to a society is evolutionarily similar to adding antibiotics
    >to a bacterial culture. Instead of drug resistance, we see
    >the emergence of non-truth contingent refutation resistence.
    >Ideas masquerading as quantum theory can thus help a mystical
    >belief system spread more vigorously in a society that reveres
    >science and technology. The belief systems can be more
    >contagious and refutation resistant. More about these concepts
    >on my site.
    > > In many of the social sciences there is a tension in the discipline
    > > between its prescriptive and descriptive urges. It's internal
    > > perhaps. Linguistics is a good
    > > example. (and maybe the positive-natural law dichotomy in legal
    > > theory.) Prescriptivism is not much in fashion these days. But
    > > fashions, by definition, change.
    > >
    > > Dawkins sounds as if he comes from a prescriptivist school of memetics.
    >There may be reasons to doubt whether Dawkins really supports
    >evolutionary cultural replicator theory, but that is a long and old
    > > It's a bit like a lab scientist criticising germs because they are bad.
    >--Aaron Lynch
    I think you're looking at this pehnomena from the wrong end. What we should
    be examining is who is using the word and for what purpose. A physicist
    using the word to talk to his fellow scientists will use the term in a very
    narrow sense because his reputation is tied to that usage. The average
    person, however, uses the term as a metaphor more often than not. (As in
    "Star Wars was a quantum leap over previous science fiction movies.)

    When it comes to books like The Dancing Wu Li Masters or any book with the
    word ZEN in the title and quantum in the text, the author is often trying to
    break down ideas used in his discipline for the benefit of readers who lack
    the vocabulary and the knowledge to understand the concepts being talked
    about. Again, that is a metaphorical use of the word.

    To attack such usages for a lack of narrowness is to misunderstand the why
    and how of what the author was doing with his words. For subjects like
    mysticism or religion, we have to resort to metaphor in an attempt to
    explain ideas that are too abstract to be understood through language. This
    is especially true in a new science like quantum mechanics because even the
    people who coin the words usually have a fuzzy understanding of the concepts
    they are trying to convey. They have to talk about them before there can be
    agreement between themselves and others on exactly what it is they are
    referring to.

    When talking about ideas there are no words for, the tendency is to borrow
    words from many places. Murray-Gellman, for example took simple, every-day
    words for his division of the atom into things he alled "color," "top," or
    "strange." He didn't mean these usages to convey the same meaning we use
    them for in conversation. Some physicists borrow the words for new ideas
    from mystical subjects because they find some similarities in the ideas that
    compare the vagueness of philosophy and the vagueness of concepts like
    strings and quants.

    At least in the beginning, they were vague. It's only later when enough
    people agree on what has been observed that the meaning takes on some
    sharpness and definition. I think there is a tipping point somewhere in
    here that causes meaning to clarify when enough people begin using a word in
    a rigorous way.

    I don't think it does anyone any good to complain about writers not using
    scientific terms with the same rigor they are used in scientific
    publications. You have to fit the words to the purpose and the audience you
    are writing for.


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