Thursday, February 14, 2013

#421: Fred Alan Wolf

A.k.a. Captain Quantum
A.k.a. Dr. Quantum

Fred Alan Wolf used to be a theoretical physicist specializing in quantum physics, is a former physics professor at San Diego State University, and has helped popularize science on the Discovery Channel. He is also a first-rate crackpot (with credentials) and has written extensively on the relationship between physics and consciousness (“The Dreaming Universe”, “Mind into Matter”, “The Yoga of Time Travel”, etc (no, they’re not peer reviewed), and the pseudo-documentary “Shamanic Physics”). Philosophers of Mind do that as well, of course, but Wolf isn’t in that camp – he has no expertise in the area, and just as so many other hacks, he is fond of reifications and category mistakes. A typical example is his claim that the laws of physics are created by us, which is, in one sense, true insofar as we described them in human language and applied our arbitrary units of measurement … can you guess the point at which Wolf gleefully lapses into equivocation? (Hint: the fact that our sentences are built up of words the meaning of which is determined by convention, does not suggest that the phenomena we describe with those sentences are determined by convention.) In general Wolf likes to claim that ancient eastern mysticism and quantum physics are two sides of the same coin (shades of Capra) and that this provides a real explanation of consciousness (a rather illuminating point about where people like Wolf comes from is provided here). To put it simply: if consciousness (e.g. how to account for the phenomenon of subjective points of view) was a mystery to begin with, then shouting “quantum and Buddhism” does not count as an explanation of that mystery any more than shouting “mysterious spiritual souls” or "have no idea" would count as an explanation (though the last option would at least be rational and reasonable).

I suppose Wolf’s stance may be summed up by his enthusiastic appearance in the Ramtha production "What the BLEEP Do We Know?" and “The Secret”.

Now, Wolf does have a certain understanding of physics, and his fluffery is usually founded on a kernel of truth (such as this). Indeed, as opposed to most quantum woo promoters, Wolf knows his quantum physics. His problem is that he doesn’t have the faintest clue about anything else, least of all the phenomena he thinks quantum physics can explain.

Diagnosis: Fluffbot. Very productive and probably rather influential, unfortunately.


  1. This narrative is exactly the chuef complaint against Western Scientific Intellectual Arrogance.

    Western Science only explains so much. The Western society has been around for roughly 600 years, in comparison to mideastern and eastern dicietsso (600 to 6000 years).

    Si Wolf is completely correct; "What the Bleep do We actually Know in comparison!

    1. But ask any scientist, and he or she will probably quickly point out the enormity of what we *don't* know. It's what we *don't* know that drives sentence. What characterizes New Age Scientists, and the What the Bleep gang, is that - although they sometimes say we "don't know anything" - go on to pretend to know a whole bunch of shit through imaginative gesturing. My complaint against these people is largely based on what they claim to know but don't.

      I have no idea what your point about ages of cultures is supposed to be. Western societies have been around for a while, and for most of that time they knew nothing of reality beyond their immediate sensory experience - just look at all the theological and philosophical speculations from the thousand years known as the Medieval times. It became deeply sophisticated and often very interesting - these people weren't dumb - but none of it was knowledge; it was all unsupported speculation - the *duration* of the period didn't change that; the speculations became sophisticated and complex, but they remained speculations. That changed with the evolution of science and scientific methods for investigating the world. There is still a lot of stuff we don't know, but we know *some* stuff. People like Fred Alan Wolf, however, are idly speculating, and to make what we do know, through science, to fit those idle speculations driven by what he wants to be true, he often distorts what we in fact do know through science as well.

      So yeah, for a tl;dr summary: There is very much we don't know. That's not the issue. The issue what people like the Bleep people claim that they know that's the issue. The power of tradition is just as untrustworthy (think Medieval European speculations) as their own wishful-thinking-driven sophistry.