Quantum Physics and No Spirituality — Carlo Rovelli and Helgoland

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This is the latest and last in a long series of articles about the relationship between the quantum physics revolution and a spiritual worldview. For what has preceded, click here for a general overview. I have just finished summarising Danah Zohar’s The Quantum Self. I devoted several articles to this, because it was fascinating to see how an open-minded physicist approached the problems of consciousness, the self, and the relationship between mind and body, and where this journey took her.

The latest development in this long story is that Carlo Rovelli, theoretical physicist and populariser of science, had a new book out this year called Helgoland in which he attempts to explain quantum physics to the general public¹.

I noted much earlier that, even though quantum physics is recognised as the most successful theory of all time in terms of its experimental results, predictions and applications, there are nevertheless various interpretations of it; there is no consensus as to the philosophical implications, what it all means. Never has this been so apparent as when we compare Rovelli’s conclusions with Zohar’s. She ends up speculating about a God both transcendent and immanent. Rovelli’s interpretation is about as close to materialism as it is possible to be while supposedly remaining quantum. It would therefore be more appropriate to say that he is explaining his interpretation of quantum physics, since he is something of a lone voice.

I am going to be critical of his conclusions, so let me say in advance that this book is probably the best I’ve read in terms of giving the history of the early period — exactly which physicist contributed what — and an explanation of the different interpretations of quantum physics that a general reader can understand.

The book is somewhat paradoxical. Superficially he would appear to be returning to what Fritjof Capra started in The Tao of Physics, pointing out the parallels with Eastern religions, since he has a chapter on the Buddhist teacher Nāgārjuna. He says that he was contemplating the problem: what is the world’s elementary substance, if not matter? He was unconvinced by all suggestions until he came across a text by Nāgārjuna, and he found that “the resonance with quantum mechanics is immediate”.

The central thesis of this text is that “there is nothing that exists in itself, independently from something else”, thus things have “no autonomous existence”; “everything exists only… in relation to something else”. He is therefore pleased that the long search for the ultimate substance in physics may have ended, since there isn’t one. Other ideas he found appealing were:

  • “There is no ultimate or mysterious essence to understand that is the true essence of our being. ‘I’ is nothing other than the vast and interconnected set of phenomena that constitute it, each one dependent on something else”. He therefore thinks that “centuries of speculation… on the nature of consciousness vanish like morning mist”.
  • “the ultimate reality, the essence, is absence, is vacuity. It does not exist”.
  • The world of phenomena is “not a world that we should trouble ourselves attempting to derive from an Absolute”. “There is no sense in looking for an ultimate substratum”. “There is never an ultimate reality”. He is pleased therefore that “no metaphysics survives”.
  • “Reality, including our selves, is nothing but a thin and fragile veil, beyond which there is nothing”.

This apparent attraction to Buddhism is somewhat misleading, however, since the main thrust of the book is that there is absolutely nothing spiritual at all to be discovered in quantum physics, which he wants to keep as close to materialism/naturalism as possible. The only difference between him and a materialist seems to be that, whereas materialists believe in separate entities, he believes that this is a mistake and that reality is made up of relations rather than objects: “Quantum physics is the discovery that the physical world is a web of correlations: relative information”. This is therefore merely a different way of understanding the surface level of reality. That is hardly a revolutionary idea, and is in contrast to the truly revolutionary idea, as advocated by the various physicists I’ve discussed. They say that quantum physics is the discovery that the apparently material universe emerges from one or more other levels of reality.

Here are some of his statements which demonstrate his predisposition and commitment to materialism:

  • He thinks that there is a “mountain of stupidity dressed up with the word ‘quantum’… (including) holistic quantum theories of every kind; mystical quantum spiritualism”, which he calls “an almost unbelievable parade of quantum nonsense”.
  • He consistently seeks physical, natural explanations for everything: “The conviction on which this book is based is that we human beings are a part of nature”. By this he means processes rooted in biology, calling Darwin’s Origin of Species a “marvellous book”. He rejects anything that smacks of Idealism, Dualism, hidden levels of reality, or spirit. On the same theme, he favours the ideas of the physicist Ernst Mach whose philosophy “is a real natural philosophy”, which “resonates with the ideas of Marx and Engels”. Why that should be considered attractive is far from clear to me.
  • On the same theme, he calls the “radical scepticism of (David) Hume” some of “the best of much Western philosophy”. Really?
  • He says that “reality is not divided into levels”. There can therefore only be the one level of apparent ‘matter’, which contradicts the beliefs of the whole earlier quantum tradition.
  • He calls the idea of “being constituted by some vaporous supernatural substance that remains alive after death” a “sad hope”, and “utterly implausible”. (He is denying the reality of an astral body, or a soul.)

He believes that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain:

  • “To ask what consciousness is, after having unravelled the neural processes… is a question that makes no sense”.
  • “There is no reason to suspect that in our mental life there is something not comprehensible in terms of the known natural laws”.
  • “It is possible to think of both mental and physical phenomena as natural phenomena: both products of interactions between parts of the physical world”, thereby denying the independent reality of mind/consciousness.
  • He quotes with approval the philosopher Erik C. Banks: “However mysterious the mind-body problem may be for us, we should always remember that it is a solved problem for nature. All we have to do is figure out that solution by naturalistic means”.

He even concludes that “quantum theory is of no direct help in understanding the mind”. That’s a bold (and unsubstantiated) assertion. I’ll merely note that various other physicists have thought the exact opposite, or at least that it’s worth considering the possibility. Danah Zohar wrote a whole book The Quantum Self, believing that it did. Also worthy of attention is Fred Alan Wolf’s Mind and the New Physics, and Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind, and Shadows of the Mind. (Penrose is a giant in the world of contemporary physics, a Nobel Laureate, no less. His two books together devote 1,000 pages to the possible relationship between quantum physics and mind.)

Like several modern neuroscientists and philosophers, Rovelli believes that the self is an illusion. He says that “we have the ‘intuition’ of an independent entity that is the ‘I’ ”. He thinks this an error (and perhaps he’s right), but his argument is very poor, saying that “we also once had the ‘intuition’ that behind a storm there was Jove… And that the Earth was flat. It is not through uncritical ‘intuitions’ that we construct an effective comprehension of reality. Introspection is the worst instrument of inquiry if we are interested in the nature of mind”. Whether or not he is correct to say that the self is an illusion, in line with Buddhism, these are very poor analogies. What he calls intuitions are indeed errors, misunderstandings. He completely misses the point, however, since what he actually needs to explain away is the consciousness or self that is aware of the storm or the Earth in the first place, the ‘we’ who are ‘interested’ in the nature of mind. That would be a much harder task than ridiculing the mistaken beliefs of earlier humans.

He doesn’t find panpsychism persuasive, saying that “there is no need to attribute proto-consciousness to elementary systems”. He hasn’t even understood the argument, however, which he claims is: “since we have consciousness, and are made up of protons and electrons, then the electrons and protons should already have a kind of proto-consciousness”. The real issue, which needs to be addressed, and which led Zohar cautiously to adopt a limited panpsychism, and other physicists, for example David Bohm, to go even further, is that sub-atomic particles appear to have consciousness in actual experiments. They seem to be aware of the experimenter’s decisions, and seem capable of attempting to solve problems. That is the difficulty that Rovelli needs to explain if he wishes to reject panpsychism.

I hope that is enough to demonstrate Rovelli’s preconceived assumptions, his prejudices, and his poor reasoning. In order to argue his position, he goes off in an unusual direction. The wave/particle duality is one of the cornerstones of quantum thinking, and has led to much bewilderment in the minds of quantum physicists. What exactly can this mean? Rovelli, conveniently for his argument, denies that it is a problem, saying: “the wave is not a representation of a real entity: it is an instrument of calculation that gives the probability that something real will occur”, comparing it to weather forecasts. “It is not enough to think of the electron as a wave… When we look at (a wave), it disappears, concentrated into a point, and we see the particle there”. What he is saying therefore is that, because the wave is not a representation of a real entity at the material level, that for him is enough to deny its reality.

Rovelli conceded that “there are many different interpretations of Nāgārjuna’s text”, but I won’t go into a discussion of whether his is correct, and therefore whether Nāgārjuna’s worldview is the true one. What is important to note is that Rovelli, predisposed to materialism and opposed to anything spiritual or metaphysical, found there what he wanted to find, or perhaps interpreted what he read in order to make it fit with his views. He chose to adopt the teachings of one single Buddhist, who may or may not have been correct, and ignore the teachings of Hinduism, Taoism, Kabbalism, and spiritual traditions in general. In the same way, he picked out a single physicist (Ernst Mach) whose thinking appealed to him, and ignored the whole tradition of earlier quantum physicists who completely disagreed with him.

Like Danah Zohar, Rovelli believes he has arrived at a worldview which can serve humanity: “I think it is time to take this theory fully on board… into the whole of contemporary culture”. He presumably thinks this because he believes it to be true, and truth is good. It is hard to see, however, how his interpretation of quantum physics can offer any sense of meaning or purpose to any alienated individual, or society in general. All he has done is move the goalposts; we once believed in separate entities, now we have discovered that they only exist in relationship to each other. There is interconnectedness, but still at the ‘material’ level. This is exactly the opposite conclusion to that of Danah Zohar, even though they both start as quantum physicists with the same material — history and experimental results — at their disposal.

Rovelli’s book is inspired by Werner Heisenberg and his reflections on quantum physics on the isolated island of Helgoland. It was he who “found the idea that made it possible to account for all the recalcitrant facts, to build the mathematical structure of quantum mechanics”. Heisenberg therefore was the prime mover in this revolution in physics, and it is no surprise that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the “creation of quantum mechanics” — that is the actual wording of the citation.

Rovelli, however, doesn’t mention or is unaware that Heisenberg was also a Lutheran Christian, publishing and giving several talks reconciling science with his faith. Also, as I noted earlier in the series, Fritjof Capra says that Heisenberg was a major source of inspiration for him. Furthermore, he went through the manuscript of The Tao of Physics with him chapter by chapter, thanking him for his personal support and inspiration. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that Heisenberg endorsed the thesis of Capra’s book, which Rovelli would presumably call “mystical quantum spiritualism”, thus “quantum nonsense”.

Heisenberg also wrote: “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”. He would presumably think that Rovelli had only taken this first gulp, and would have rejected everything that he says. Ironically, Helgoland (in English Heligoland), the lonely island where Heisenberg worked out the foundations of quantum theory, can be translated as ‘Holy Land’ or ‘Sacred Island’. It probably seemed like a holy place to Heisenberg, but obviously not for Rovelli!

Carlo Rovelli

I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).

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Footnote:

1. Allen Lane, 2021

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com