Quantum Physics and Spirituality — Danah Zohar and a New Society, part 8
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 most recent articles, which deal with her earlier chapters, although this is not essential. (You can find the relevant links in the overview.) In them she explored the nature of consciousness, the mind-body problem, her quantum understanding of the personal self, and the nature of relationships, specifically those experiences when we do not feel self-contained, when two people can overlap so that they participate in an identity bigger than their individual selves.
In the following chapters she continues to develop the last of those themes, that the self sometimes seems contained within the body, yet on other occasions seems to extend beyond it. In chapter 10, which is entitled ‘The Survival of the Self: Quantum Immortality’, she therefore turns her attention to the question of life after death. She thinks that what she has written in her earlier chapters, the suggestion that consciousness arises from within a quantum process in the brain, seems to prevent any continuation of consciousness without that brain. Various experiences during pregnancy, however, have led her to contemplate “a wholly new way of thinking about the survival of that self”. These sound like what we might call spiritual experiences, altered states of consciousness, similar to those reported under the influence of psychedelics:
- “In many ways I lost the sense of myself as an individual, while at the same time gaining a sense of myself as part of some larger and ongoing process”.
- “I felt complete and self-contained, a microcosm within which all life was enfolded”.
- “I experienced myself as extending in all directions, backwards into ‘before time’ and forwards into ‘all time’, inwards towards all possibility and outwards towards all existence”.
She therefore goes on to contemplate whether life after death might be possible. A classical scientific perspective suggests otherwise: “Any expectation of immortality has relied upon belief in the existence of a personal, immortal soul”, or an astral body “which detaches itself from the physical body at the moment of death… (Each) flies in the face of modern scientific sensibility”. As we might expect by now, she wonders what the physics of this survival might be. She assumes that the existence of a soul implies dualism, but thinks that “the physics of consciousness argue against the separation of mind and body”; “there are no grounds for the dead having continuing experience”.
From a quantum physics perspective, however, things can be viewed differently. Early in this chapter she says that “at the subatomic level of elementary particles, there is no death in the sense of permanent loss. The quantum vacuum, which is the underlying reality of all that is, exists eternally… Within this well (of being) all basic properties are conserved… nothing is ever lost”. (This vacuum will be discussed in more detail below.)
She goes on to state that the concept of an isolated personal self is an illusion, because it is part of an ongoing greater process: “Viewed quantum mechanically, I am my relationships”. By this she means not only our relationships with others…
- “On a quantum view of the self, there can be no hard and fast distinction between my own past and that of another with whom I am intimate”.
- “I and you overlap and are interwoven, both now and in the future”.
…but also our relationship to life and the universe itself:
- “On a quantum view, there is no way to draw any sharp distinction between my persistence through time, my close relationship to others, and my survival after death. Neither isolation nor death have any clear-cut meaning”.
- “I am made of the stuff of which the universe is made and the universe shall be made of me”.
- “With a quantum view of process, it becomes clear in a new way that ‘I’, not just my atoms or my genes, but my personal being — the pattern which is me — will be part and parcel of all that is to come, just as it is part of the nexus of now and, indeed, was in large part foreshadowed in the past”.
She therefore concludes that “all life is an ongoing process of which we are a part”, because “there is no real division in space or time between selves. We are all individuals, but individuals within a greater unity, a unity which defines each of us in terms of others and gives each of us a stake in eternity”. “Understanding the full reality of the extent to which we are all, physically, interwoven, requires a revolution in our whole way of perceiving ourselves and our relation to others… We know that quantum physics calls upon us to alter our notions of space and time, but now we have to accept that this touches each and every one of us at the core of our personhood”.
Perhaps not everyone will agree with the logical process by which she arrived there but, starting from a scientific quantum physics viewpoint, she has arrived at what we might call a spiritual worldview; there is an eternal underlying reality (the quantum vacuum), which is the source of everything that exists, an ongoing evolutionary process. In the language of spirituality, God is both Being and Becoming, both transcendent and immanent. Philosophically this is called evolutionary panentheism, a position which I would wholeheartedly subscribe to.
Her next few chapters are not directly relevant to this main theme, so I’ll offer only a few notes. The next chapter is entitled ‘Getting Beyond Narcissism: the Foundations of a New Quantum Psychology’. This is merely a continuation of an earlier theme. By narcissism she means the “model of the self as a thing which exists in isolation”, not in the usual sense of the psychological problem (excessive interest in or admiration of oneself). This has to be transcended, and again she states the spiritual idea that the self is a microcosm of the universe: “To be a self in the first place is to be a being within whom all of reality finds expression… Equally, a psychology based on the quantum nature of the person carries with it certain basic moral implications, implications which follow internally from the very nature of the self — a nature which it shares, at its most basic level with the whole of reality”.
In chapter 12 she discusses the question of free will and determinism. She says that “we certainly experience ourselves and others as free”, yet “such experiences of freedom are… at loggerheads with any arguments we might use to defend or justify them… It is difficult to argue rationally what we know intuitively”. The Freudian viewpoint is that “all mental activity is the result of unconscious mental forces which are instinctual, biological and physical in origin”, thus the human psyche is “by its very nature the bond slave of unconscious forces outside its ken and beyond its control”. This leads many neuroscientists, and in their wake various writers on Medium, to deny the existence of free will.
Zohar, however, argues for some free will:
- “The physical basis for freedom in any quantum system is quantum indeterminacy, the fact that quantum wave-functions can’t be ‘pinned down’ ”.
- “It is only with a quantum model of the person, where ‘I-ness’ arises out of a coherent, unifying quantum state in the brain, that there can be any one, central ‘me’ who makes or avoids mistakes”.
In the next two chapters Zohar discusses creativity and aesthetics. Then chapter 15 has the bold title ‘The Quantum Vacuum and the God Within’.
Many people believe that science and religion are completely separate realms, and “each is alien to the other and neither can learn from or refute the other”. She disagrees, saying that, in contrast to Newtonian physics and Darwinian theories of evolution, “quantum physics, allied to a quantum mechanical model of consciousness, gives us an entirely different perspective. This is a perspective from which we can see ourselves and our purposes fully as part of the universe and from which we might come to understand the meaning of human existence (her italics)… If such a perspective were fully achieved, it would not replace all the vast poetic and mythological imagery, the spiritual and moral dimensions of religion, but it would provide us with the physical basis for a coherent world picture — and one which includes ourselves”.
This is how she attempts to justify such a statement. If gravity is “regarded as a basic organizing factor in the universe, mediating the passage from equilibrium to non-equilibrium”¹, and “gravity itself is a boson force field”, then “bosons (gravitons) are a large-scale driving force which moves the universe towards greater order. At a more basic level still, they may even be responsible for the collapse of the quantum wave function”. If all that is true: “From the very beginning, then, from the most primary level of what later become the material world and the world of consciousness, the building blocks of matter (fermions) and the building blocks of consciousness (bosons) are necessarily involved in a mutually creative dialogue. That which, in a far more complex form, later becomes us, is part and parcel of the basic dynamic through which the universe unfolds. With this understanding of the origins of consciousness — that it begins wherever two bosons meet — it may not be too wild to speculate that a gradual evolution of consciousness is the driving force behind that unfolding. This is not quite as strong as saying that Mind created the world, but it is suggesting that the elementary building blocks of Mind (bosons) were there from the beginning, and were necessary partners in that creation. In creating themselves (fulfilling their nature as ‘relationship’), they evoke the world”.
“This capacity to increase the rhythms of evolution, specifically of evolving consciousness, may suggest a reason for human existence. It may hold the key to why we are in the universe, and give us some good notion of exactly where we fit into the general scheme of things (her italics). To understand this fully, we need to see the link between the physics of human consciousness which I have proposed in this book and the physics of the quantum ‘vacuum’ as proposed by quantum field theory”.
The quantum vacuum is therefore the key. She says that it is “very inappropriately named because it is not empty. Rather, it is the basic, fundamental and underlying reality of which everything in this universe — including ourselves — is an expression”. The vacuum can be conceived “as a sea of potential. It contains no particles, and yet all particles come about as excitations (energy fluctuations) within it… The vacuum is the substrate of all that is”. (Earlier this quantum vacuum sounded remarkably like the Brahman of Hinduism, the Tao, or the Ayin of Kabbalism — a complete emptiness. Following this clarification it sounds more like the creative principle Brahma, the Pleroma [fullness] of the Gnostics, or the Kabbalistic En Sof.)
Developing this further, she believes that, since it is reasonable “to conclude that the physics which gives us human consciousness is one of the basic potentialities within the quantum vacuum, the fundament of all reality”, this “might even give us some grounds to speculate that the vacuum itself (and hence the universe) is ‘conscious’ — that is, that it is poised towards a basic sense of direction, towards a further and greater ordered coherence. If we were looking for something that we could conceive of as God within the universe of the new physics, this ground state, coherent quantum vacuum might be a good place to start”.
She says that the idea of a transcendent God will always remain appealing for some, although this can obviously only be a matter of faith, and it leaves us with a God who undergoes no creative transformation. “But if we think of God as something embodied within, or something which uses, the laws of physics, then the relationship between the vacuum and the existing universe suggests a God who might be identified with the basic sense of direction in the unfolding universe — even, perhaps, with an evolving consciousness within the universe. The existence of such an ‘immanent God’ would not preclude that of a transcendent as well, but, given our knowledge of the universe, the immanent God is more accessible to us. This immanent God would be at every moment involved in a mutually creative dialogue with His world, knowing Himself only as he knows His World”.
She notes that this is the concept of god as proposed by Teilhard de Chardin and by ‘process theology’, and “it is a concept in terms of which it makes sense to speak of human beings — with our physics of consciousness which mirrors the physics of the coherent vacuum — as conceived in the image of God, or as partners in God’s creation”. Again she is coming close to adopting the philosophy of evolutionary panentheism, God both transcendent and immanent, both Being and Becoming. And all this from a starting point of the science of quantum physics.
Her last chapter is entitled ‘The Quantum World-view’. That will be the subject of the next article, the final one about her.
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. Gregoire Nicolis, colleague of Ilya Prigogine