BOOK REVIEW / We're all Bose-Einstein condensates now: Peter Forbes explores an abstract, mechanical attempt to prove that we are living in a dream world: The Quantum Society -Danah Zohar & Ian Marshall: Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
DANAH Zohar believes that the Newtonian tradition of mechanistic science, which has been the model for Western life for two centuries, is bankrupt. She suggests that quantum mechanics, which overthrew mechanistic physics 70 years ago, should usurp it in every aspect of our lives.

This is not wholly original: Fritjof Capra, Morris Berman, Rupert Sheldrake and others have been saying the same thing for nearly 20 years. But Zohar claims that our consciousness is a quantum phenomenon, and that any appearances to the contrary are merely the result of Newtonian conditioning.

Her book is thus partly yet another exercise in Western masochism, and partly an outrageous flouting of the naturalistic fallacy - her message is that because a single light particle seems able to go through two slits at once, we ought to be able to merge our egos with other people's. Zohar has collaborated with Ian Marshall, but the book is to a large extent a rewrite of Zohar's The Quantum Self (whole chunks of the earlier book are paraphrased), so the thrust of the argument, not to mention the first person narration, feels like her own.

Zohar's Newton is a straw man. He stressed separation, force, particles colliding and veering off into the void, while quantum mechanics stresses non-localized waves which can ignore the boundaries between things and persons.

One can see the appeal of this: if real hard science can make us feel more linked, less alienated, it validates our ancient yearnings. And if mortar shells still fall on Sarajevo according to impeccably Newtonian ballistics, and a Jumbo jet succumbs to gravity, slicing through an Amsterdam tower block, it helps if we can say that these atrocities are irredeemably old fashioned, and will soon melt away in a pleasant quantum haze.

The danger, however, of extending quantum mechanics into the human sphere is apparent early on when Zohar appears to smile on the holistic tendencies of Japanese corporate culture ('a strict code of obedience . . . group callisthenics, the communal singing of the company anthem each morning') and even football hooligans: 'One articulate football hooligan I spoke to said that being 'borne along' was his real reason for attending football matches'. Perhaps the New Age means that work will begin with: 'We shall now sing the company anthem, as sanctioned by quantum mechanics', followed by a good kick-in to cement group bonding.

For Zohar, the word quantum has become something that confers added value - like the man who discovered he'd been talking prose all his life, we can now feel magnified by seeing all our commonplace activities as manifestations of universal quantum principles. I believe she is wrong on two main counts. She persistently contrasts contemporary quantum physics with 17th century atomism and mechanistic theories, as if nothing had happened in between. The word 'chemistry' never appears in the book, but the fabric of our experienced world is chemical and biological rather than quantum-physical. The structure of DNA is eminently Newtonian and three-dimensional, and even the computer whose electrons are quantum creatures produces patterns that are the perfect Newtonian dream of rigidly determined, frictionless motion.

Secondly, Zohar believes that quantum mechanics is a refutation of Newtonian science, when it is its extreme refinement. In one of the saddest sections of the book she tries to convince us that our part-Newtonian, part-commonsense view of the world - things are located in three-dimensional space, you can't be in two places at once, and so on - is caused by 300 years of mechanistic conditioning, and is not the true nature of the world.

The real error was made 300 years ago by Galileo and Newton, and quantum mechanics perpetuates it: it is in confusing mathematical operations on the primary qualities - position, dimension, mass, time - with the unified fabric of the experienced world. The reason that the quantum world is so bizarrely unlike ours is that it is the reductio ad absurdum of that confusion. The material world has not been spirited away by quantum mechanics. Somehow, it's still there.

Superficially, that consciousness itself might be a quantum phenomenon is more plausible than the dissolution of empirical reality. All attempts to localize consciousness have failed, and we experience its elusive character: we are always thinking of something, but where does a thought start? Can you catch yourself thinking? The whole process seems as unpredictable as radioactive particle decay.

Zohar identifies a quantum mechanism, the Bose-Einstein condensate, which she believes could supply a real mechanism for consciousness. She seems unaware of the linguistic absurdity of this - one can imagine Monty Python's women in the launderette: ' 'Ave you 'eard, they say we're all Bose-Einstein condensates.' In any case, it is all highly speculative, and not accepted by most neuroscientists. At one point she cites the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman without admitting that he has explicitly attacked quantum theories of consciousness: 'Until we reach a biological impasse, therefore, we would do well to reject as a category error the notion that exotic physics itself will give a description of the observer's consciousness'.

In the end the worst aspect of this book is that in a work devoted to spiritual rebirth Zohar cites not one painting, piece of architecture or music. Painting and architecture, of course, are quintessentially Newtonian arts (a virtual building in hyperspace might pass as quantum architecture). Even music is spatial. Only one art is repeatedly invoked here: free-form dance, an analogy that limply trails along in the book's wake.

And given that Zohar is so much on the side of life, is it too much to ask that the text of a book like this should contain colour, metaphor, wit and humour? It is relentlessly abstract and mechanical (all those Bose-Einstein condensates). Judged by her own lights, it is a thoroughly etiolated Newtonian job.

For me, Zohar wins only one round: chapter six, in which she attacks post-modernism. Although the book begins by suggesting that like the Red Queen in Alice we should be able to believe six impossible things before breakfast, here, refreshingly, she sets up commonsense in opposition to the nihilism of deconstruction.

The problems Zohar addresses are real, but her idee fixe tries to explain too much to be credible. Her anti-Newtonian zeal leads her to claim that power in modern society is not real, but merely a projection of a mechanistic value system. Does she imagine that warlords everywhere, from Somalia to Bosnia, pray to Newton every day?

(Photograph omitted)

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