Thursday, August 09, 2007

Law of Attraction

I've been off-blog for a long spell, but all is well around here. The quantum mechanics textbook project is humming along pretty well, although it was interrupted this summer by (1) an unplanned trip to Arkansas when my Mom hit her head and went into the hospital, and (2) a month-long trip out west for physics, math and tourism. Mom is much better now and the Great Western Vacation (4000 miles in a rental car) has been successfully concluded, so it's back to work. And when I find a spare moment, perhaps I'll drop something here.

This entry is occasioned by correspondence with Lyn Perry, whose online acquaintance I've made via this blog. (He made some very kind comments about the story "The Pasadena Rule". I may have more to report about that story soon.) Lyn wrote a couple of posts at his own blog regarding "The Secret", which is a quasi-mystical self-help book that has been on the bestseller lists. In the course of our email exchange, he invited me to read these -- especially Part 3, which mentions quantum theory -- and tell him what I thought. It occurs to me that my remarks may be interesting to the rest of you. So OK, Lyn, here goes.

But first, a word to everybody else. In case you have been paying as little attention as I have, "The Secret" is a fundamental teaching about how to attain success, a teaching that has (I gather) been implicitly known to all the great spiritual and ethical teachers since time began. The basis of it is the "Law of Attraction", which says that good things like success are drawn to those who have certain good habits of mind, such as clear focus, optimism, patience, integrity, etc. This affinity is supposed to be built into the laws of the universe -- not simply in the game-theoretic sense that such-and-such behaviors might be "good strategies" for achieving success in a complex multiperson world, but in a more direct way, like gravitation.

Lyn is specifically trying to evaluate these ideas within a Christian context. He makes the case that the practical lessons involved can be valuable and that they resemble some distinctly Christian teachings. He is worried, however, about the theoretical foundations, and thinks that something may be badly amiss there. Rather than comment on Lyn's comments directly, I think I'd rather give my own (necessarily brief) take on the subject.

The "Law of Attraction", such as it is, does represent an enduring human intuition about how the world works. Certain kinds of good things do seem to come more easily to people with certain virtues, and certain kinds of evils seem to cluster around people with certain vices. But as soon as you go beyond a limited empirical observation and a bit of practical encouragement for virtue, it seems to me that the thing begins to stink. I will give three objections that occur to me.

Moral objection. The Law of Attraction appears to have a rather appalling corollary: If somehow you do not succeed, if evil rather than good befalls you, then this is to some extent Your Fault. You may still be a nice person in many ways, but if you had possessed the right qualities than perhaps things would have worked out better. Can a person of good conscience, much less a Christian, contemplate the plagues and atrocities of human history in this way? This strikes me as the kind of casual heresy that could only catch on among people who are comfortable and largely thoughtless, and who imagine that their own middling existence is the full extent of the moral universe. The evils they know are not too horribly black and the goods, frankly, are not too heroically white. But the literature of the Holocaust, the writings of Milosz and Solzhenitsyn and the rest, the testimonies of the great saints, and Holy Scripture itself, all tell us that the world is both better and worse than we comfortable and thoughtless people conceive.

Spiritual objection. Christ on the cross, himself sinless and yet carrying the sins of the world, must be the foundation for all Christian moral teaching. The connection between what we are and what happens to us is shaped by grace, by sacrifice and exchange and substitution (see Charles Williams), by the relations between selves -- in short, by Love. The Law of Attraction seems rather out of step with this Eternal Dance, and on that basis alone it is suspect as a guide to Christian behavior.

Scientific objection. Now I get to the part that Lyn wanted me to say something about. Here is a summary idea under discussion: Everything (including thought) is energy, and (because of the quantum) energy is associated with vibration. One could imagine therefore a kind of "resonance" between thought-energy and other things in the world. This is suggested as a deep mechanism behind the Law Of Attraction. (Lyn may object that I've oversimplified. Fair enough. Go read what he really said.)

The only trouble is that I disagree with the premise. Is thought energy? I think that people have the idea that the mind is a kind of powerful energy "field", pictured as a glowing numinous aura. (Any number of old Star Trek episodes have reinforced this image. After all, a glowing numinous aura was one of the few special effects that 1960's TV could really do.) But the physical energy associated with brain impulses is pretty small, which is why it is easier to lose weight by jogging than by mathematics. This reminds me of those natural philosophers of a past age who carefully weighed dying people just before and after they died, trying to detect the soul's departure. Indeed, given Einstein's famous relation between energy and mass, it may amount to the same thing. "Thought" is energy in much the same way that "baseball" is energy. There is clearly energy involved there somewhere, but a thermodynamic description of yesterday's Cardinals-Padres game leaves out something -- or almost everything -- important.

I think what we have here is a complex unexamined metaphor, of a kind that often occurs when physics concepts are invoked to explain something in a quite different field. The same term "energy" is used to refer both to a physical quantity and to a kind of vital quality shared by sentient beings. But that is essentially metaphorical. Just because we use the handy word "energy" to describe the restless liveliness of an active mind does not mean that this quality is properly measured in Joules. All of which brings to mind the marvelous remark made by another physicist correspondent of Lyn's. He wrote
To the best of my knowledge, there is no scientific evidence for a connection between subnuclear or quark physics and the metaphysical sort of attraction that makes our lives more or less worth living. And, I know no basis for a scientific theory along these lines.

My experience is that people who push such things are usually interested in attracting money out of your wallet. Watch out, please.
And really, this cannot be improved upon.


Anonymous i know someone who believes this stuff said...

You are too polite to these people. The damage that they do is tremendous. If you go to a book store and see how many of these useless self-help books there are, you'll see that there are way more than there should be. I wouldn't mind, but I suspect that some of the people who read these books are probably in quite vulnerable positions, and could do with help to deal with reality rather than being brainwashed by this lunacy.

I know someone who believes this stuff, and it really isn't helping him deal with his real problems. There's no way I could disuade him otherwise though, cos' I'm just another scientist, and therefore part of the establishment.

5:08 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Where does thought come from? I mean if you deliberately decide to think of a new thing, what decides which new thing to think of?

1:30 PM  
Anonymous rpenner said...

"...a glowing numinous aura was one of the few special effects that 1960's TV could really do..."

Pedantically, I must point out that Star Trek was filmed and the special effects are from film processing.

"It's a gift .. and a curse." -Adrian Monk

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