Quantum Physics and Spirituality — Danah Zohar and a New Society, part 5

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay Image by Avi Chomotovski from Pixabay

This is the latest 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 am currently summarising the book The Quantum Self by Danah Zohar, and what follows will make most sense if you have read the preceding articles, which deal with her earlier chapters (click here and here and here and here).

Having outlined the basic issues, and made some preliminary steps towards understanding the mystery of consciousness, in chapter 7 Zohar addresses the question of how the mind and body relate, (thus the Hard Problem of Consciousness — although she was writing before that term was coined). As I said in the previous article, even though this series is about the relationship between quantum physics and a spiritual worldview, this section is merely about Zohar’s book, which is one physicist’s attempt to understand this mystery. She is attempting to understand consciousness from a scientific point of view. My purpose is to examine how successful this quest of hers is.

She begins by quoting Descartes, including, “I am truly distinct from my body, and can exist without it”, an extremely dualist viewpoint (with which anyone who has had an out-of-body experience might be inclined to agree.) She then describes the conflict inside her. Her heart and intuition tell her that she is indeed different from her body, thus that she is “a good Cartesian at heart”, despite her “rational convictions to the contrary”, which are presumably derived from what modern ‘science’ has told her. She thinks that her intuition is the result of “some deep patterns of belief laid down in my own childhood and strengthened by the whole tenor of my education”, implying that she must have been indoctrinated into an antiquated worldview.

She nevertheless says that “most of us feel that our minds (or souls) and our bodies are somehow essentially different… We experience ourselves as a self which has, or a self within a body”. She repeats that “this deep cultural conditioning holds us in its grip”, apparently suggesting that we should really know better by now, but then points out that the physics of the last 300 years supports it: “Given our everyday essentially Newtonian notion of what matter is, and hence what bodies must be, there is no clear way to see how they could be anything like minds”. She also notes that philosophers since Descartes “have tried in vain to argue any viable alternative”.

Matter has no purposes, intentions, emotions, or desires. There is no reason why atoms should give birth to life. Historically therefore, “the physical was set against the mental as a world apart, and in turn the mental came to be seen in terms that were not physical”. These “two radically different realms of existence… for the most part remain with us today”.

She concludes therefore that “there is little wonder that dualism holds us all within its spell”, yet “the obvious alternatives seem equally unpalatable, or just plain impossible”. She rejects materialism for the usual and obvious reason that it cannot account for consciousness. She makes the important point, however, that the motivation for materialism “springs from a wish both to simplify our account of Nature and to rid mankind of what many have seen to be religious superstition and fear”. (Neither of these, it seems to me, are sound scientific reasons for advocating materialism, but closer to philosophical prejudice. What evidence is there that Nature is simple? Quantum physics suggests the opposite. Wanting nature to be simple merely suggests that one’s mind may not be up to the task of understanding it. And religion cannot be got rid of simply because one does not like it.)

She is also uncomfortable with idealism. She says that this has taken many forms, including the most extreme version which “asserts the material world is just a figment of the imagination”, and a more cautious variety which “simply argues that all the perceived qualities of the material world depend upon mind, whereas matter itself is real enough in some sense”. She says that this “doesn’t sit well with our common-sense intuitions about the world of experience, and it is ill-suited to the pursuit of objective science”. (Neither, of these, it seems to me, are sound reasons for rejecting idealism. She seems here to be rejecting the connection with idealist Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet our ‘common-sense’ intuitions about the world may be profoundly wrong, what these religions call maya. Perhaps a true understanding of reality is counterintuitive, and perhaps completely objective science is an unrealistic aspiration, however desirable that might be.)

Because she is uncomfortable with these two alternatives, she contemplates panpsychism, as she did in an earlier chapter: “Perhaps the mental is really a basic property of the material and vice versa. Perhaps the basic, underlying ‘stuff’ of the universe is just one ‘thing’ which possesses two aspects”.

She has therefore come to the same conclusion as the philosopher Philip Goff in his much more recent book Galileo’s Error; namely that panpsychism seems the only plausible option if one has rejected materialism, dualism, and idealism. She says she is attracted to panpsychism because, unlike materialism or idealism, it attempts to find one substance which unifies the mental and the material, without denying the reality of either. (This is not especially convincing. The second sentence could just as easily be interpreted as an idealist position, the underlying ‘stuff’ being pure consciousness, and she has already noted a “more cautious” form of idealism which accepts that “matter itself is real enough in some sense”.)

She is going to advocate a limited panpsychism, but her version will be different from the more traditional one, which she says doesn’t get to the heart of the problem: “It only pushes it back to a more primary level of reality, where ultimately, if electrons are conscious, we then have to say that they have a mind/body problem”. (This is a valid objection, one which I believe applies to Philip Goff’s book, once one appreciates that panpsychism is a logical deduction, merely moving the goalposts, rather than something based on scientific evidence.)

Zohar now begins to present her own vision. She says: “Something is deeply wrong with all the traditional approaches to the mind/body problem because ultimately they all rest on outmoded notions of matter and/or they fail to see how any more updated notions — those following from quantum physics — could do much to explain how anything going on in our very physical (objective) brains might give rise to all the mental characteristics associated with the (subjective) mind”. She therefore believes that the discoveries of quantum physics will enable us to understand consciousness, thus that a scientific explanation is possible.

She reminds us that matter as we perceive it is actually not very material. Instead we have “patterns of active relationship, electrons and photons, mesons and nucleons that tease us with their elusive double lives as they are now position, now momentum, now particles, now waves, now mass, now energy — and all in response to each other and to the environment”. Existence and relationship “are the two sides of the quantum coin, and they are essentially what we mean by the wave/particle duality”, which is “a good metaphor for a deeply integrated mind/body relationship. But given the idea that consciousness itself arises out of a coherent ordering of virtual photon relationships in the brain’s quantum system, it becomes much more than a metaphor. The wave/particle duality of quantum ‘stuff’ becomes the most primary mind/body relationship in the world and the core of all that, at higher levels, we recognize as the mental and physical aspects of life” (her italics).

She then elaborates on this idea, explaining that the particle aspect gives the appearance of matter, while “it is because of the wave aspect and what it allows to happen that the quantum systems display a kind of intimate, definitive relationship among their constituent members that doesn’t exist in classical systems”. The latter she calls ‘relational holism’. She believes that this kind of quantum relationship, “which creates something new by drawing together things that were initially separate and individual… is both the origin and the meaning of the mental side of life” (her italics). She is suggesting that “consciousness is at the most primary level of existence a pattern of active relationship, the wave side of the wave/particle duality”, and therefore concludes: “The mind/body (mind/brain) duality in man is a reflection of the wave/particle duality which underlies all that is. In this way, human being is a tiny microcosm of cosmic being. We are, in our essential being, made of the same stuff and held together by the same dynamics as those which account for everything else in the universe. And equally… the universe is made of the same stuff and held together by the same dynamics as those which account for us”.

She notes that her understanding indicates that mind is “not some mere offshoot of brain function”, thereby challenging materialism. More importantly for the originality of her interpretation, consciousness is not a ‘property’ of matter, as other panpsychists argue; it cannot be traced back to matter because it is “in its essence, relation-al”, (by which she means derived from the wave, not the particle).

How impressive and convincing is her analysis? From a spiritual perspective, we see some interesting terms and ideas beginning to appear. Relational holism sounds something like undivided wholeness. The whole universe, presumably both mind and matter, is made of the same ‘stuff’, as any idealist would agree. “Human being is a tiny microcosm of cosmic being”, which sounds like Hinduism. There are, however, some weak links in how she arrives at these conclusions:

  • Is comparing the wave/particle duality to mind and matter, despite her claim, really anything more than a metaphor or analogy? Is there any science behind it? I’m not sure.
  • She says that the wave/particle duality is “primary”, “irreducible to any other thing or process”, it is the “origin of the mental and the physical”, but has not explained how this wave/particle duality comes into being, from where it arises.
  • In similar vein, we may agree that there is a wave/particle duality, but this is two different aspects of what exactly? She herself has said that “perhaps the basic, underlying ‘stuff’ of the universe is just one ‘thing’ which possesses two aspects”. In which case the wave/particle duality is presumably not primary and irreducible.
  • The universe may be “held together by the same dynamics as those which account for us”. But what exactly is doing the holding?

Her search continues in the next chapter, which is entitled ‘The Person That I Am: Quantum Identity’. That will be the focus of the next article in the series.

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).

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