Tuesday, October 21, 2008


A variant of the following essay was spoken on Episode 10 of The Reality Check and it can also be found on the Ottawa Skeptics webpage.
In the past several years, there seems to be (or at least I seem to run into) an increasing amount of people who say things like “We are all energy” or “We are all connected through our energy.” I am usually discussing some life event, observation or coincidence and the person I am talking with says something like “Well, it’s because of the energy we put out in the universe?” I often find myself perplexed by such statements and, admittedly, a little irked. This essay is an exploration into what such statements could possibly mean; an important objective because in nearly every case these statements do not have the truth value nor the explanatory power intended by the speaker. [There are obviously echoes of The Secret and What the Bleep do we Know here; the former will have to wait, while you are free to read my review of the latter here.]
First, a brief review of what energy is and then an examination of what could be or is likely meant when energy is used in casual conversation (italics will represent this different usage). Finally, some brief tips are offered on how to deal with these situations when they arise.

What is energy? In physics and the sciences, energy is defined as a characteristic of objects and systems and can be transferred from one object or system to another (this is basically the concept of work as defined by physics); or you could say energy is the capacity to do work.
Given that broad definition, several examples might help to further understand what is meant by energy.
Kinetic energy is the extra energy due to motion; so your car has more energy the faster it goes (and so do you).
Mechanical energy could be that stored and then released after you have wound a clock. You have transferred energy (i.e., the effort you spent to wind it) to the clock so it could use that energy to turn its hands and tell time.
Elastic energy is that which exists or is stored when you stretch a spring or elastic. You can feel the opposing pull when you stretch something, that tension is elastic energy.
Gravitational energy is due to the effect of gravity that creates a force acting on all objects. For us on Earth, this force is best seen as one that is trying to push objects to the centre of the earth. When you pick something up, you are working against this force. Consequently, a box higher on a shelf will have higher gravitational potential energy than one on a lower shelf (and thus it is easier to bring to chest height).
There are numerous other kinds of energy such as thermal, chemical (bonds in a molecule) and nuclear (bonds in an atom) so the above is not an exhaustive list. The point to notice is that in the aforementioned cases, the concept of energy is well defined and its various properties can be tested; and that the technical usage of words related to energy is not the same as the conversational usage of the word energy (i.e., "conserve energy to help the environment" makes little sense considering the law of the conservation of energy in physics).

Now that we have investigated various scientific definitions of what energy is, we can now examine what might be meant when someone says something happened due to energy.
It seems there are several, interrelated explanations of which I shall discuss three:

1) Energy.
The word energy can be used as it relates to feelings of physical well being. People speak of feeling intellectually, emotionally or physically drained and they associate this feeling with low levels of energy; as in “I felt great, I had lots of energy,” or “I found that concert energizing,” or “I’m having low energy.” This usage mainly relates to the activities, behavioural and cognitive, as well as substance intake (caloric, pharmaceutical, etc.) of a person, mitigated by their disposition, inclinations and experiences. Energy used in this common way could be described as the capacity for activity (which is quite close to the more technical definition of capacity to do work).

2) Negative energy.
The phrase ‘negative energy’ is usually used to describe how one feels about a situation or person. Upon entering a room, some people will say there is bad energy around or a person in the room is giving off bad energy. Similarly, many people might use the term ‘vibe’ here, which does not do us much good as it is almost vaguer than the usage of energy. Yet, most people understand the notion of ‘bad vibes’ because they have had a similar experience. Further, they usually explain their perception by the concept of intuition. I believe the experience they are having is real, but I think it is (simply) due to the (complex) rapid actions of your senses. In fact, I would say intuition is best defined as very fast subconscious processing. Our eyes and ears and other senses quickly assess numerous aspects of a room when we enter it and we don’t always consciously realize we are detecting certain facial expressions, grimaces, stances, postures or tones in addition to the placement of objects, music, colour, and setting. Rather, we just feel good or bad being in that room or approaching a particular person.
Many people will often disagree with the notion that the feeling of ‘negative energy’ is a combination of observations and perceptions by our five senses and go on to imply that there is another sense of sorts that would explain this. Unfortunately, just as often there is no specificity or mechanism offered to explain this sixth sense, so that hypothesis cannot be tested. What can be tested though, is if someone would still feel this negative energy if their sense were artificially limited (i.e., if their sight and hearing were blocked). This is a possible experiment whereby one could control the sense or senses blocked and the type of room and people in the room and see if there is any reliable difference. I doubt there would be, but at least the phenomenon could be investigated in a methodologically sound manner.

3) Positive Energy.
This is the other half of ‘negative energy’ and seems to be the big one (or explain more of the variance if you prefer that language). Some people often say “If you put out positive energy, it will come back to you.” Now, what exactly does this mean? Surely it is not that by giving our televisions energy we get to be entertained? More defensible would be the argument that if you are a happy, positive, kind person, then happy, positive people will want to be around you more. Once that happens, you will feed off their happiness and positivity. Additionally, it could be that if you project ‘positivity’ in the sense of confidence, then this will lead to success and perhaps actual confidence, which could lead to more success and so on. These last two possible explanations make sense to me in general terms, but for those who use the phrase energy, these accounts do not seem to go far enough.
Based on personal experiences, I would say that it really seems such people are using some concept of Karmic Energy in which your actions and thoughts have a causal connection to events in the universe. Of course it is true that our actions affect the universe in a limited sense, but what is meant is something far grander.
It is not that if you are angry or mean you will likely decrease your happiness and increase your own stress levels as well as those close to you, it is that by you being in a negative state, thinking negative things, you have somehow created an input to a huge, mysterious processor or database that totals all thoughts and actions, and at various, seemingly random times, this database will act and affect the universe by choosing to send outputs similar in polarity to the inputs. To clarify, it seems it is believed that if you think positively, you will be more likely to find 10 dollars in the street or get that job for which you interviewed. Note, in the extreme form of Karmic Energy it is not your abilities and skill-set that got you the job, it is simply that you thought positively about getting it. Similarly, if you have trouble losing weight, it is not because you got an unlucky ticket in the genetic lottery or that your eating and exercise habits are poor, it is that you are not having enough positive, thin thoughts.
[One could attempt to argue that I have created a straw man by focusing on an extreme version of Karmic Energy, but I do not understand how one could have a moderate version. Perhaps one’s thoughts would only contribute 10-30% to the outcomes in one’s life and as such, only have a moderate impact. Considering this reduced effect would still violate reasoned notions of cause and effect, it would still seem immoderate to me (but I’m willing to listen).]
Clearly, this is preposterous, yet it obviously is not that clear because numerous people still believe such things.
What many believers of this Karmic Energy seem to neglect is the other side of things; that is if positive thought bring positive outcomes, then negative thoughts must bring negative outcomes. Therefore, if something bad happens to someone, it is because they had too many negative thoughts. I find extreme examples useful to illustrate the absurdity of this position. So, raped when you were 12? Your fault. If some drunk driver killed your mom in a car accident, it would be her fault. Innocent civilian bombed in Iraq? That would be their fault. And what of the millions of children under 5 years old that die each year from starvation (of which chances that several 2 starved to death since you started reading)? Well, that’s their fault of course.

After pondering the ridiculousness of these implications, one begins to wonder if believers somehow think that this karmic process does not work for negative energy?
[Of course, those who are staunch believers in certain types of reincarnation would not find such outcomes ridiculous. This also confuses me because I then wonder how it all started. If you have a bad life now, that means you erred last time. But if you screwed up last time, then that means you screwed up the time before too. Keep going back and I wonder when this cascade of bad lives first started and the whole thing gets increasingly confusing and decreasingly plausible.]
But if that is the case, then how is that possible if it supposedly works for positive? How could positive exist without negative? Wouldn’t they be opposite ends of a continuum?
It would appear that there are levels of incoherence here and yet this belief persists. Why? I don’t know, but I will offer a few potential explanations.

First, there is some truth to the notion that we are energy, but this use of the word ‘energy’ is well defined and backed up by precise measurements, observations and calculations. If we descend to the level of the very small, we can say that particles, atoms and molecules have various energetic characterizations, but this does not fit primarily because the same people who say energy usually don’t like to think of themselves as atoms and molecules, and secondarily because these energies can be demonstrated and tested.

Second, there are invisible forces such as gravity or magnetism that do indeed affect the world without being overly visible (let alone postulates in physics about dark matter and dark energy). Such rigorous or well-support propositions such as gravity could lead to less tenable hypotheses suggesting other, invisible forces. Note: all of the so-called invisible forces like gravity are based on being able to detect and study the phenomenon, while the vague forces usually don’t allow for falsification.

Third, good old quantum mechanics – a very complicated discipline of which I’ll only attempt a shallow overview as it relates to statements of energy. Quantum mechanics, the physics of the very small, works in very strange ways; one such way is that by our trying to observe particles we are limited in the observations we can make. This is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Basically, one cannot know the precise location and direction of a particle, but just a probability distribution of this information. Consequently, if you want to know the location, you have to give up direction or vice verse. Additionally, you can get information on both location and direction, but it will not be complete; the more you know about one, the less you know about the other. It is thought that particles exist as probabilistic wave functions that collapse when measured. This is thought not to be a limitation of experimentation, but an inherent aspect of the system being studied (and perhaps Nature itself). As a result of this quirkiness, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is often conflated with a phenomenon known as the observer effect – one changes what is being measured by the process of observing, even though that is not exactly what Heisenberg’s principle implies. Of course, there is debate among physicists whether this phenomenon is just about measurement or observation or both, but it is generally accepted that it is neither the measurement equipment nor the act of observing that is responsible for the odd, probabilistic nature of particles.
[There are complex, nuanced debates about what the findings of quantum mechanics mean, as well as which (philosophical) interpretation should be used to assess them. An analysis of these debates is beyond the scope of this essay as well as the competence of the author.]
A second, related finding of quantum mechanics is the concept of entanglement, whereby one or more particles becomes linked with another particle such that by measuring a property in one particle will fix the same property in another particle, but in the opposite way. A common example is that of the quantum mechanical property of spin, which is supposedly indeterminate until it is measured. If two particles are entangled and it is determined one is spin-up then the other particle in the entangled pair is known to be spin-down. The distance between the particles is irrelevant so some have postulated faster than light communication, hidden variables or quantum teleportation to explain this “spooky action at a distance,” as derisively stated by Einstein.
So, if we take the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which only allows probabilistic knowledge of particles and, in a way, leads to an observer effect when the wave function is collapsed during the measurement of a particle PLUS the notion of entanglement which indicates some particles are connected such that determining a property in one seems to fix that same property in another, we FIND a (not necessarily valid) source for the beliefs that actions change reality and everything must be connected.
Unfortunately for those trying to use quantum mechanics to justify statements about energy, there is no good evidence to suggest quantum mechanical properties scale up to the level of humans and their thoughts and actions. You can know the current position and direction of a ball; this is what allows you to catch it. Additionally, an apple does not exist as a probabilistic wave; it is a solid object that remains at rest until otherwise disturbed. Regarding more egregious interpretations of observer effects, you cannot outrun a bear just because you think you can; it would obviously depend on your relative speed in relation the bear.
As for the statement “everything is connected,” there is no reason to believe that large objects become entangled and then influence each other. I have yet to hear of two toilets that were entangled during their production and distribution phases such that if the toilet seat was observed to be up in one of them, then it would automatically be down in the other. Of course, everything is connected and this fact comes out of the law of universal gravitation (or general relatively) in that all objects are pulled toward each other. But, most connections are so weak as to be usefully meaningless. It is true your mass has some effect on Jupiter, but that effect is dwarfed by the rest of the earth. So, sorry to say, but you practically become negligible. Similarly, gravity may be pulling down on you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t walk upstairs or enjoy a broad range of motion.

Fourth, people dislike the notion of only having proximate purpose. Meaning, it is not enough that, for the lucky 6th of us, we can choose our purpose on this Earth with much freedom, but there has to be even more purpose than that. Specifically why Intentional, Ultimate purpose would make one’s life more meaningful remains elusive to me, but I understand its (psychological, not gravitational) pull.

Fifth, people want to live in a just world. Perhaps if positive thoughts and actions can increase positive events in our lives, there would be a reward for being good and therefore there would be some notion of justice. Quite unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest we live in a just world. Additionally, if just by thinking you can increase or decrease positive or negative events, this would indicate a high degree of control, which is generally what people like to have. Again, this does not appear to be true; further, the more control you have, the more you have to let go of ultimate purpose as the two concepts contradict one another.

To summarize, energy exists in many forms, and it is true that we are energy and things are connected. This is not in some mysterious Karmical way that has some processor intentionally doling out good and bad in the universe, but in simple ways, that relate to the known laws of our universe and the causal fabric of space-time in which we to find ourselves.
So, what to do if someone says we are energy?
The first thing is to ask yourself if it was said by a physicist or a chemist. If so, you can reasonably assume they mean one of the initially mentioned scientific definitions (although this is not necessarily the case).
If it is not someone overtly sciency, then you should calmly ask, “What do you mean?” Give them time to answer, but try to get them to provide a specific mechanism or lead them in the direction of providing a testable hypothesis. If there is resistance and it becomes a debate of sorts, it will probably be useful to bring up the question of why bad things happen to good people. This is known as The Argument from Evil and has yet to be solved by religious people who believe in an all-powerful and good God, so it probably won’t be solved by believers in energy. Additionally, and very important, state that you could be wrong and there could be such a thing as Karmic Energy, it is just that you currently see no reason or evidence to believe there is. We skeptics should always make a statement similar to that contained in the previous sentence. After such an exchange, your discussion might turn to the nature of truth, but that topic will have to wait for a different post.
Remember, it is far better to explore another’s views by asking them questions instead of telling them what you think is right and trying to get them to agree. In this way, there is a greater likelihood of an altered view and the person will have some sense of ownership of the ideas involved and as such will be more likely to remember them. Remember, it worked for Socrates… well, until he was killed.


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