Quantum Physics and Spirituality — Danah Zohar and a New Society, part 2
This is the latest in a series about the relationship between the quantum physics revolution and a spiritual worldview. For what has preceded, click here for a general overview. In the preceding article I briefly introduced the ideas of Danah Zohar and her book The Quantum Self¹, in which she offers her ideas on what quantum physics means for our understanding of ourselves, society, and how we should live our lives. Here I’ll begin to explore her ideas in more depth. Perhaps more than any other book I’m aware of, this one encapsulates the whole theme of my series, how the discoveries of the quantum physics revolution can lead to a spiritual worldview. For that reason I’ll devote several articles to it. (I’m assuming that readers will have some familiarity with the basic ideas of quantum physics.)
In her early chapters, Zohar outlines the challenges that quantum physics poses for our everyday understanding of how the world works. She begins with the familiar idea that quantum mechanics is the most successful theory ever, but that physicists are unable to explain the philosophical implications of the results: “no one new picture of reality has emerged from all the equations generated, never mind a new world-view in which the discoveries of quantum physicists reach down to quicken the imaginations of ordinary people”.
These discoveries have even led some physicists and philosophers to deny that there is any reality at all. Zohar states emphatically, however, that “there is a real world in which ‘things’ exist”, and therefore that quantum mechanics “must be brought more into dialogue with such facts in the everyday world”. Like many others, she believes that the key lies in an understanding of the nature of consciousness: “We conscious human beings are the natural bridge between the everyday world and the world of quantum physics, and that a closer look at the nature and role of consciousness in the scheme of things will lead both to a deeper philosophical understanding of the everyday and to a more complete picture of quantum theory”.
As we all know, the existence of consciousness has always been a problem for both science and philosophy. Zohar considers “very seriously the possibility that consciousness, like matter, emerges from the world of quantum events, that the two, though wholly different from each other, have a common ‘mother’ in quantum reality. If so, our thought patterns, and beyond that our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the world at large might in some ways be explained by, and in other ways mirror, the same laws and behaviour patterns that govern the world of electrons and photons”. Such ideas are very similar to those of David Bohm, who was discussed in an earlier article.
Zohar continues: “If our intellect does indeed draw its laws from Nature, then we have the further consequence that our perception of these laws must to some degree mirror the reality of Nature herself. Thus in knowing ourselves, we can come to know nature”. She then concludes her first chapter by saying that both our science and psychology can be based on the discoveries of quantum physics, and that “through a wedding of physics and psychology we can live in a reconciled universe, a universe in which we and our culture are fully, and meaningfully part of the scheme of things”. This was the general worldview before the advent of the so-called Enlightenment, to which we perhaps need to return.
In chapter 2, Zohar outlines the problems we encounter when faced with accepting quantum theory:
- that we can’t easily imagine a world which mocks the reality of space, time, matter and causality, so that, according to Bohr and Heisenberg, “there is no clear, fixed, underlying ‘something’ to our daily existence that can ever be known”. This is a view that she broadly supports, that “the foundation of reality itself is an unfixed, indeterminate maze of probabilities”.
- that electrons jump, apparently without cause
- that there is apparent time reversibility at the quantum level
- that things happen simultaneously in every direction at once
- and that, “if reality at the everyday level… does indeed consist of actual things… while at the quantum level there exist no actual ‘things’, but rather myriad possibilities of countless actualities, what becomes of all that potential? … What role, if any, is played by all the lost possibilities in achieving this final state of affairs?”. This problem has led some physicists to speculate about the possibility of parallel universes.
She further explains how some of the things we automatically assume to be true in our everyday lives, are not so from the quantum viewpoint. She begins with movement: “At the quantum level of reality, the whole picture of continuous movement through space and time breaks down”; quantum physics is a physics of lumps and jumps. She then discusses relationship: “Things and events once conceived of as separate, parted in both space and time, are seen by the quantum theorist as so integrally linked that their bond mocks the reality of both space and time. They behave, instead, as multiple aspects of some larger whole, their individual existences deriving both their definition and their meaning from that whole”. This leads on to a discussion of the phenomenon of non-locality, whereby “two events can be related across time in a way that ensures they will always act ‘in tune’, and any attempt to set up a cause-and-effect relationship between them is useless”, thus “two events happening at different times influence each other in such a way that they appear to be happening at the same time”. This has been proved many times over, yet defies classical physics and common sense, and “has obvious mystical overtones”. We can see here signs that her study of physics is leading her to adopt what we would call a spiritual worldview.
In chapter 3, Zohar discusses one of the most difficult questions associated with quantum theory: “If reality at its most fundamental level is just an indeterminate porridge of many possibilities… How do we get the world? At what point is reality real-ized?” She accepts the usual conclusion that observation collapses the quantum wave function, that reality happens when we look at it. However, her reasons for doing so are radically different from the standard viewpoint, as expressed for example by John Archibald Wheeler and Eugene Wigner. Their interpretation is dualistic, suggesting that mind and matter are separate entities. It also leads to difficult questions like this one: “what conscious being was here at the beginning of things to collapse the first wave function?”, that is to say, before the advent of human (or animal?) consciousness. On the contrary, she wants “to see ourselves — our souls, if you like — as full partners in the processes of nature, both in matter and of matter”. She believes therefore that there is something either wrong or incomplete about quantum theory: “since it can’t account for whatever it is about observation that collapses the wave function, it simply can’t apply to the whole of physical reality”. We need a better physics for the consciousness of observers.
In the following chapters she begins to explore these questions, and develop her own understanding. This will be the subject of future articles.
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).
1. Flamingo, 1991