Michael Shermer and Sam Harris recently debated uber woo Deepak Chopra and someone called Jean Houston – the subject being “Does God Have a Future?” I haven’t seen that debate yet (click the link for a video), but I have read Shermer’s brief description and his account of an exchange (between Shermer and Chopra) that took place afterwards. Read Shermer’s initial blog post My Debate Date with Deepak (and friends), which includes this:
During the debate Deepak claimed that the moon is nothing more than a soup of teeming quantum uncertainty. No. Subatomic particles may be altered when they are observed, but the moon is there even if no one looks at it.
Deepak apparently read this and replied. Shermer posts Chopra’s replies in Does the moon exist if there are no sentient beings to look at it? See if you can spot the equivocation / moving of goalposts:
[Quoting Chopra] When you see an object, the moon being the example you chose, your eyes are not really “seeing” the moon. Your eyes are responding to photons that follow all the rules of wave-particle duality. […] There was no moon till it was an experience in your consciousness.
Chopra just can’t be honest. In the first paragraph, he is claiming the the Moon literally isn’t there (it’s just “a soup of teeming quantum uncertainty”) if no one looks at it. Shermer calls him on this nonsense. Chopra, slyly moves the goalposts and replies that now it’s the photons that enter your eyes that exhibit the quantum uncertainty. He hopes you won’t notice the switch – that he is now talking about photons hitting your eyes (and creating the image of the Moon), and not the Moon itself that is subject to quantum uncertainty. He has, effectively, conceded that the Moon is still there (and of course it must be – otherwise, where would the photons have been reflected from in the first place?), although he hopes you won’t notice that he actually just disproved his own point.
Of course, even if we are just referring to photons following all the rules of wave-particle duality, there is still no reason to suppose that consciousness is necessary. Chopra has a longer piece up on the huff Post - Which Is Real, the Moon or God?, where he makes this claim (if you can be bothered to wade through over 2,000 words some of of the most dense woo I have ever read). According to Chopra, everything is quantum, which means everything is consciousness, therefore god exists, or something:
The basic understanding of the collapse of the wave function is called the Copenhagen Interpretation,
No, the Copenhagen Interpretation is just one way of looking at the situation. It may represent reality, it may not, but it is not the “basic understanding” of QM.
in which a non-material observer is involved in quantum measurement.
Except for the “non-material” wording, that is (rather trivially) correct. Clearly something (could be a human; could be a measuring instrument) has to “measure” something. There is no evidence that that thing has to be “non-material.”
John von Neumann demonstrated that an understanding of the collapse of the wave function requires consciousness.
No he didn’t. As I wrote in my review of What the Bleep Do We Know, the theory of quantum mechanics doesn’t say this. Chopra is confusing the theory of quantum mechanics with an interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is an explanation to help understand what might be going on, but it is not part of the theory because it is not falsifiable: it cannot be tested in such a way that, if it were false, it would fail the test (without falsifying the whole of quantum mechanics, and therefore all the other interpretations too).
To falsify this interpretation you would have to see what would happen without a conscious observer monitoring the experiment. But that’s Catch-22: you need a conscious observer monitoring the experiment to see what happens. You can’t look at the experiment without looking at it so no one can ever know if this interpretation is true. So although von Neumann may have believed such a thing, he never demonstrated it.
Without an observer, there is no collapse, no particle, no matter, no measurement.
Maybe, but the “observer” can be something non material – a scientific instrument, say. There is no reason to suppose that consciousness is required.
Alternative quantum theories such as transactional interpretation and many-worlds theory try to get around the need of consciousness or an observer, but fail in the end. Essentially they don't fulfill the requirements of quantum physics because any quantum measuring device still must be physical and ultimately exist as quantum wave probabilities. One set of measuring waves superimposed on other waves to be measured, only leaves more waves, not particles, not a quantified measurement. And as Niels Bohr makes clear, in quantum mechanics, if it isn't measureable it isn't real. So in spite of these newer quantum speculations, no one has been able to successfully dispense with a non-material observer.
Well, of course no one has been able to dispense with an observer. But it does not have to be a “non-material observer” as Chopra claims. In fact, Chopra has not even demonstrated that such a thing as a “non-material observer” even exists. Someone, ultimately, has to look at the measuring instrument to see what the result was. Obviously. Someone has to open the box and look at the cat. But until that person does that , there is no way to know what the result was without consciousness, and so there is no justification for saying that consciousness is necessary. Sorry Deepak, you don’t understand what you’re talking about.
(Sigh.) Anyway, back to the original question raised in the post title - if we all ignored Deepak Chopra, would he cease to exist, would he disappear in a soup of teaming teeming quantum uncertainty? Although we might perhaps wish this to be true, I have to say that, no, even if we all ignored him, Chopra would still exist to spew out more quantum drivel tomorrow, the next day, and the next day ad infinitum. At least it gives me something to blog about.