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The following was originally published in CIRCLE Magazine, Summer 2001

Quantum Magic

Mental Meandering on Quantum Physics and Magic

by Nataraj Hauser

I attended a lecture at the 2000 Pagan Spirit Gathering by author Phyllis Currott. She spoke about her studies of magic (or magick, if you prefer, referring to bone fide magic rather than slight of hand or illusion as practiced by David Copperfield, et. al.) in terms of quantum physics. I recall being captured not so much by any specific thing of which she spoke, but by the overall theme. The delightful mystery and raging debate among learned scientists on the topic of quantum physics leaves much wiggle room for creative minds to offer conjecture about what those concepts mean to applied magic.

Quantum Magic World 'A'

Many people claim to have or use genuine magic. The Brazilian shaman Joao de Deus, or John of God, has been treating numerous ailments by the laying on of hands for more than 30 years. According to reports he treats up to 3000 people a day, making the blind see and paraplegics walk, and curing cancers and other illness. He does all this without medication of surgical invasions of the body. There are scores (thousands?) of people in the United States who swear by the healing power of Reiki attunements. Contemporary Witches report success with spells of all sorts. Is this magic? Can any of these claims be substantiated by an impartial review? Can ant of those magical actions be replicated on a consistent basis?

What are the mechanisms for shamanic healing, Reiki, spell work; the whole realm of what we consider "magic"? Can quantum physics provide the underpinnings for magic? In order to answer that question, the reader must be acquainted with some of the basic principles of of quantum physics, starting with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. According to Dr. Greg Bothun of the University of Oregon:

"In the Quantum Mechanical world, the idea that we can measure things exactly breaks down. Let me state this notion more precisely. Suppose a particle has momentum 'p' and a position 'x'. In a Quantum Mechanical world, I would not be able to measure 'p' and 'x' precisely. There is an uncertainty associated with each measurement, e.g., there is some dp and dx, which I can never get rid of even in a perfect experiment!!! This is due to the fact that whenever I make a measurement, I must disturb the system. (In order for me to know something is there, I must bump into it.) The size of the uncertainties are not independent, they are related by:

dp x dx > h / (2 x pi) = Plank's Constant / (2 x pi)

The preceding is a statement of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. So, for example, if I measure 'x' exactly, the uncertainty in 'p', dp, must be infinite in order to keep the product constant.

This unccertainty leads to many strange things. For examply, in a Quantum Mechanical world, I cannot predict where a particle will be with 100% certainty. I can only speak in terms of probabilities. For example, I can say that an atom will be at some location with a 99% probability, but there will be a 1% probability that it will be somewhere else (in fact, there will be a small but finite probability that it will be found across the universe). This is strange. A consequence of the Quantum Mechanical world is that particles can appear in places where they have no right to be (from an ordinary, common sense [classical] point of view)!" [1]

Now that you have a basic introduction to a pretty strange concept under your belt, let's proceed. Quantum physics deals with entities that freely dance across the border between matter and energy. They are entities so microcosmic that the very act of trying to measure them changes their velocity, location, and/or basic properties, introducing even more uncertainty into the experiment. Quantum physics doesn't deal well with absolutes. It deals with probabilities. An electron's velocity and location cannot both be accurately measured. To start with, it may be inappropriate to refer to an electron as having a location at all. At best, we can determine the probability that it's in a certain location or area. Experiments have shown that if an electron is not within a comfortably "probable" location (within its proper shell in an atom's electron cloud, for example), it could be anywhere, including being on the wrong side of an "impenetrable" barrier.

In the book Alice in Quantumland, a magical treat which I highly recommend, author Robert Gilmore uses allegory to describe what is understood about quantum physics. An exchange between the bewildered traveler Alice and the Quantum Mechanic illustrates an interesting point: "And there is no way you can say what each particle is doing until it is observed?" repeated Alice, just to get this clear.

"No, no way at all. When the thing that you actually observe could have come about in several different ways, then you have an amplitude for each possible way, and the overall amplitude is given by adding all of these together. You have a superposition of states. In some sense the particle is doing all of the things which it could possibly be doing. The interference shows that the different possibilities are all present and affect one another. In some ways they are all equally real. Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory." [2]

So far that sounds pretty good. It seems that many things are happening simultaneously, and all are equally valid and real until observed. Alice has the same thought, and eventually follows it up with the next guide she encounters, the Master of the Copenhagen School: "Does that mean when you look at something you can choose what you will see?" asked Alice in some disbelief.

"Oh no, you do not get any choice in the matter. What you are likely to see is determined by the probabilities for the various quantum states. What you actually do see is a matter of random chance. You do not get to choose what will happen; the quantum amplitudes only give the probability of different results, but they do not fix what will happen. That is pure chance, and only becomes fixed when an observation is made." The Master said this very earnestly, though so quietly that Alice had to strain to catch everything that he said.

"Making an observation seems to be very important then," Alice mused, half to herself. "But then, who can make an observation?" [3] Ahh, now there's the rub! Someone who gets to make an observation becomes the one who selects, in some capacity, the actual outcome from an array of probable outcomes. It seems that now we're getting back to magic. Consider Aleister Crowley's definition of magic, paraphrased as "the act of causing change to conform to one's will." [4] I'd argue that magic is the ability to willfully effect change at the quantum level, to prepare oneself to willfully observe the desired outcome, in order to produce measurable macroscopic effects.

I propose that the use of magic reflects the probability of such an action (the spell) succeeding. If we accept as fact that even the quantum observer cannot choose which event occurs, then the people who profess to use magic reliably could simply be a few who have stumbled into a probability gold mine, while for most people it would work only some of the time. But if in fact the use of magic allows the magician to directly control the quantum observation, then I propose that the activity of spell casting puts the caster into a state that allows her to alter the probability of an action occurring, choosing perhaps some outcome that is less likely to be allowed by the classical physics of our macroscopic world. The Neo-Pagans, Wiccans in particular, have a saying: "As above, so below." By this they refer to the interdeterminism between the realms of the Gods and we mortals. But what if they got it just a bit backwards? Perhaps it's really, "As below, so above," or even, "As within, so without."

Perhaps the line between quantum (sub-atomic) and classical (macroscopic) physics is not absolute, or impenetrable. Indeed, one of the tenets of quantum theory seems to be that there is no such thing as an impenetrable barrier. Since the foundation of the macroscopic world is the sub-atomic, it may follow that it is not truly possible to measure precisely at our level. The more closely one measures, the more accurate one becomes, but only to a point. Venture too close and the rules shift dramatically, and precise measurement becomes impossible if not altogether irrelevant. It is at the quantum level where our so-called rules get broken, sometimes in ways that are very difficult to explain. Conversely, if there is a probability that a particle is going to be on the wrong side of an impenetrable barrier then perhaps there is a way to influence the probability of many (MANY) particles being where they can't be. Would that not seem magical?

There is a quantum physics concept referred to as non-local connectivity. It states that once a particle has been part of a thing, it retains a connection with all the other particles of that thing, regardless of distance. It has been theorized that if particles here flip (change their direction of spin), then all the particles not here that were formerly connected also flip simultaneously, regardless of location, regardless of distance. First, this throws the "speed of light" limit right out the window because the flip could not happen instantly over great distances if the energy required to connect the particles is limited to movement at the speed of light. Secondly, that sure sounds like sympathetic magic: if I do unto this poppet made with person X's hair, then person X is simultaneously subjected to the same effect, regardless of location. Non-local connectivity was also discussed in a fascinating conversation late in 2000 on National Public Radio (sorry, I never did catch the speaker's name). In a context of quantum mechanics, the speaker discussed pets tracking their owner hundreds of miles to a place the animal had never been (as in The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford). The animal is able, somehow, to know where their beloved human is despite the intervening miles and the fact that there is no scent trail to follow. Similarly, many twins report knowing when something drastic happens to their sibling, regardless of distance. Perhaps this is because of non-local connectivity at a quantum level.

I submit that this is the core of magic. When the shaman enters his trance (via drugs, specific drumming, meditation, etc.), the alternate reality to which he journeys may be a state where the rules of quantum physics apply. When the Witch focuses her will in the casting of a spell, she initiates change at a sub-atomic level. In short, the user of magic affects the probability of an event. The magician becomes the observer, selecting an actual outcome from the myriad probable outcomes. Non-local connectivity allows the effect to ignore distance. Magic then, is not really magic. It is merely an application of natural rules we simply do not fully understand.

Quantum Magic World "B"

Quantum physics is all about probabilities. The theory assumes that, until observed, many potential outcomes of an event are all assumed to be occurring. Therefore it stands to reason that while the previous part of this article was being written, I was simultaneously writing another version (or many versions) on a similar-but-not-the-same-topic, right? So here we go!

There is an alternate theory in the field of quantum physics often refered to as many-worlds: Many-worlds is a re-formulation of quantum theory, published in 1957 by Dr. Hugh Everett III, which treats the process of observation or measurement entirely within the wave-mechanics of quantum theory, rather than an input as additional assumption, as in the Copenhagen interpretation. According to many-worlds, all the possible outcomes of a quantum interaction are realized. The wavefunction, instead of collapsing at the moment of observation, carries on evolving in a deterministic fashion, embracing all possibilities embedded within it. All outcomes exist simultaneously but do not interfere further with each other, each single prior world having split into mutually unobservable but equally real worlds. [5]

I should note here that the many-worlds concept isn't as grand as positing that there are other complete, parallel Earths all existing simultaneously. In this case, "any complex system and its coupled environment, with a large number of internal degrees of freedom, qualifies as a world. Sometimes the term history is used instead of world. [6]

So, how does that relate to magic? We have implied above that the observer is defining reality for all others and that the other possible amplitudes (or outcomes) cease to exist at the moment of observation. The many-worlds theory offers a different view, or more precisely many different views, on that subject. According to many-worlds, the moment of observation creates a branch in the flow of potential outcomes, in essence peeling one strand from a bundle of possible events and allowing the observer, and all those within her world, to share in that reality. Others not within the observer's world at that moment may or may not share in the outcome of that event.

There are numerous phrases like "off in a world of his own", or "marching to the beat of a different drummer", that lend themselves quite nicely to this concept. A less friendly version of the first of those phrases, and one I hear a lot at work is, "what color is the sky on your world?" Many people have differing explanations for what appears to be the same event (witness religion!), perhaps because they were or were not included in a particular world at its moment of creation. At some point that world, or history, may re-merge with another history, or other histories, in much the same way as a double helix.

Consider the camous cat experiment proposed by scientist Ernst Schrodinger in the many-worlds framework: A cat is placed in a sealed box with a device that releases a lethal dose of cyanide if a certain radioactive decay is detected. For simplicity we'll imagine that the box, while closed, completely isolates the cat from its environment. After a while an investigator opens the box to see if the cat is alive or dead. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation the cat was neither alive nor dead until the box was opened, whereupon the wavefunction of the cat collapsed into one of the two possible alternatives (alive or dead cat). The paradox, according to Schrodinger, is that the cat presumably knew if it was alive or dead before the box was opened. According to many-worlds the device was split into two states (cyanide released or not) by the radioactive decay, which is a thermodynamically irreversible process. As the cyanide/no-cyanide interacts with the cat, the cat is split into two states (alive or dead). From the surviving cat's point of view it occupies a different world from its deceased copy. The onlooker is split into two copies only when the box is opened and they are altered by the states of the cat. The cat splits when the device is triggered, irreversibly. The investigator splits when they open the box. The alive cat has no idea that the investigator has split, any more than the it is aware that there is a dead cat in the neighboring split-off world. The investigator can deduce, after the event, by examining the cyanide mechanism, or the cat's memory, that the cat split prior to opening the box. [7]

(Imagine the following snippet of a letter to the editor if Schrodinger attempted his experiment today: That scientist Schrodinger may or may not be using potentially live animals for his possibly lethal experiments. Theoretical readers should/may boycott whatever product/products this research is or may be leading to. Hah!)

Thus, the significant difference between Quantum Magic Worlds "A" and "B" is that the first world posits that the observer alters reality by locking in one and only one outcome from all the potential outcomes. In World "B, the observer creates another world at the moment of observation. This other world exists for all who were within that world at the moment of observation and is unobservable to all who were not present. If/when the separate worlds re-merge, those not included in the off-splitting world would have a different view of what happened during the event. To put it differently, and in terms of magic, the magician observes the event, splitting off a new world, or history, based on the observed outcome.

But what is the observation? Is it an act of will? Is it a decision to act or believe versus not acting or believing? Take the example mentioned above of Joao de Deus, the Brazilian faith healer. Does the decision (act of will) to be healed by him trigger the split that allows the healing to occur, regardless of proximity, while those around the one healed, but not included in the off-shoot world, remain skeptical and attribute the healing to some other event? Is magic a many-worlds trigger, splitting off a new world within a "complex system and its coupled environment?" [8] Does a magic circle or a shaman's trance define a complex system, and its coupled environment the boundary of the world?

I submit that this is the core of magic. When the shaman enters his trance, the alternate reality to which he journeys may be a state where the rules of quantum physics apply. When the Witch focuses her will in the casting of a spell, she initiates change at a sub-atomic level. In short, the user of magic creates a new world. The magician becomes the observer, creating a alternate world that reflects the actual outcome from the myriad probable outcomes. Non-local connectivity allows the effect to ignore distance. Magic then, is not really magic. It is merely an application of natural rules we simply do not fully understand.

1. Attributed to Dr. Greg Bothun, Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,
2. Gilmore, R., Alice In Quantumland. New York: Springer-Verlag New York, Inc., 1995.
3. Ibid.
4. Crowley, A., Magic Book IV - Liber Aba. Maine: Samuel Weiser, 2000.
5. Price, M., Many-Worlds FAQ,, 1995
6. Ibid.
7. Price, M., Many-Worlds FAQ, Question 8,, 1995
8. Price, M., Many-Worlds FAQ, Question 4,, 1995

Copyright Nataraj Hauser, 2001
NATARAJ (at) PocketMail (dot) com

Scientist and author Arthur Clark's Third Law states: "Any suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

I offer Nataraj's Inversion of Clark's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology."