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The Unconscious Quantum Hardcover – November 1, 1995

3.7 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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"Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" by Carlo Rovelli
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Editorial Reviews

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Concerned that mysticism seems to be invading physics, physicist Stenger embarks in this book on a voyage to debunk quackery in the quantum world. Heading his New Age opponents off at the pass, Stenger devotes a hefty chunk of his text to the experiments in which the behavior of electrons is interpreted as a wave/particle duality. According to his presentation, some mystics seize on that indeterminacy of the quantum world as evidence that hidden, supernatural forces seethe beneath the quantum world. Since electrons apparently move around regardless of time and space, surely the consciousness can, too? Stenger may have to tolerate such assertions when nonphysicists like Deepak Chopra write best-selling proclamations that the human mind is immortal. However, when esteemed collegial physicist-authors (e.g., Roger Penrose and Paul Davies) also see proofs of God in quantum theory or a purposefully designed universe, poor Stenger's patience runs out. His goal is to warn off readers of those authors. He also hopes to keep current physics students from making the same error, and libraries may consider acquisition with them in mind. Gilbert Taylor


The term "quantum" taken out of its original scientific context has become the mantra of a new metaphysics which purports to find a convergence between the picture of reality presented by physics and the world view of traditional Eastern mysticism. The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics In Modern Physics And Cosmology is a fascinating and accessible book wherein physicist Victor Stenger guides the lay reader through the key developments of quantum mechanics and the debate over its apparent paradoxes. In the process, he critically appraises recent metaphysical fads popularized by such authors as Deepak Chopra and Fritjof Capra. Dr. Stenger's knack for elucidating scientific ideas and controversies in language that the nonspecialist can comprehend opens up to the widest possible audience a wealth of information on the most important finds of contemporary physics. Stenger makes it clear that current scientific hypotheses about the material nature of reality are all we need to explain the available evidence and that mystical notions say more about the human need to believe than about the fundamental makeup of the universe. The Unconscious Quantum is a refreshing antidote to a great deal of New Age misinformation & misunderstandings. -- Midwest Book Review

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 322 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (November 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573920223
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573920223
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #204,043 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Stenger is a physicist completely at home in contemporary mathematical physics, yet incurably curious about the deeper philosophical issues brought up by quantum mechanics. I have read many books attempting to explain quantum mechanics to the layman and I consider this the most careful and enlightening--also quite up to date (even in the year 2000).
The problems arising around quantum mechanics can be analyzed using the famous Bell equation, which Stenger develops extremely nicely (although it helps to be able to read the simple algebra in the optional 'boxes'). The violation of Bell's inequality, he argues (drawing on many technical papers and books) violates either Determinism + Locality or Separability + Locality, or Completeness + Locality (all terms well defined in the book). He argues strongly that quantum mechanics does not violate Locality itself,which Stenger takes as very important to maintain.
Stenger presents the classical Copenhagen interpretation of the collapse of the wave function, as well as Bohm's hidden variable interpretation, the many-worlds interpretation, and the most recent (and to my mind satisfying) decoherence approach.
The Unconscious Quantum's main message is that modern physics provides absolutely no support for New Age and more traditionally religious notions of supernaturalism. Stenger is refreshing in not denying the existence of spirituality, but holding that the world of spirituality does not, as far as we know, intersect the natural world described in the natural sciences. "While I cannot bring myself to worship a hypothesis," he notes, "I have no wish to disparage those who do. I simply ask that they not assume that science, in its current state, provides any buttress for their belief...
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Format: Hardcover
Dr. Stenger can be informative and even witty but ultimately I'd have to say this book is more than a little misleading. Other reviewers have walked away with the notion that quantum mechanics "makes perfect sense", something few thoughtful physicists would be comfortable saying. I'm an atheist who has no patience with New Age writers but Stenger seems to be almost obssessively on guard against any hint of mysticism, weirdness or even ambiguity. The book is published by an off-shoot of the magazine SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, and it shares that publication's tendency to strike an almost holier-than-thou tone -- or I should say a "rationaler-than-thou" tone. Stenger does too much sneering and dismissing. He tries to buffalo his readers by assuring them that the mathematics of quantum mechanics isn't weird -- just the WORDS are. That's a weak argument at best. Applied mathematics doesn't usually lead to paradoxical physical concepts. Stenger's own preferred interpretation of QM involves recognizing that the relativistic version of the Schrodinger equation has solutions that imply backward travel in time. In other words, he capitalizes on the weirdness implicit in the purportedly unweird mathematics (Traditionally the "reverse" solutions are ignored.) Incidentally, Stenger argues that time-travel on a sub-atomic scale somehow doesn't even qualify as weird -- just counter-intuitive. That, apparently, is a more rational word than "weird".

Stenger repeatedly belittles alternate interpretations of QM and points out that functionally all serious interpretations are the same. This means that the interpretations he favors have no more going for them technically than the ones he derides.
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Format: Hardcover
Contrary to some of the other reviews, I think this is a pretty good book. Let me point out that my own background is astrophysics (undergrad) and mathematics (grad). Stenger does a creditable job of laying out the major philosophical issues of quantum theory. He has included some sidebars for the more mathematically sophisticated. My own reading left me feeling that Stenger's aim is primarily to urge readers to approach any extrapolation from quantum facts to quantum ontologies with a great deal of skepticism. Many people have construed issues of measurement to mean that 'mind' collapses wave functions. Stenger points out that 'mind' is not easily defined, is likely an emergent property of base matter, and suggests we stop reverting to Cartesian dualism every time things get confused. He discusses De Broglie and Bohm's guiding field, and points out that regardless of its correctness, it provides a viable alternative ontology, so clearly the mystical approach is not a foregone conclusion.
The book could be better. It would be nice if he spent a bit more time discussing some of the confusion regarding 'mind', but I think he has done a good job of laying out the basic issues for the well-educated lay person, and of urging skepticism before seizing upon strange phenomena as a justification for one's metaphysics.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a great companion to Dancing Wu Li Masters. Where Dancing Wu Li Masters gives a good, somewhat mystical overview of quantum physics and the history of its development, The Unconscious Quantum shows that people who want to understand quantum physics need not resort to mysticism or Eastern philosophy. While Stenger does address mystical interpretations when summarizing the history of quantum physics, he concludes by offering a logical, consistent, non-mystical paradigm.

Stenger acknowledges that the microworld of quanta cannot be viewed in the same way as the macroworld of concrete objects that make up our everyday experience. However, if people are willing to suspend their everyday intuition and accept some very logical but unintuitive concepts, like time symmetry and decoherence, then the quantum world makes perfect sense without mastering Zen or contemplating your navel.

Stenger also shoots down the ideas of consciousness directly affecting the physical world, and faster-than-light communication between quantum particles. He explains the EPR "paradox" and other experiments which spawned these interpretations, and how they can easily be resolved using the simple but unintuitive concepts already mentioned.

The text is written for the science amateur, and requires little background knowledge, but some persistence with technical concepts (you may have to read a few parts twice to get the idea). Supporting equations are included in boxes, separate from the text. The text stands alone, but mathaholics are welcome to indulge themselves in the formulae. The first six chapters are the most technical, but it gets much easier after that, and it's definitely worth it for anbody who wants a genuine understanding of quantum physics, sans the mystical rhetoric that pervades most pop literature on the subject.
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