Quantum Physics and Spirituality — Danah Zohar and a Quantum Worldview

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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 earlier articles about her book. (You can find the relevant links in the overview.) This will be the last in this part of the series, as I’ve now reached the final chapter entitled ‘The Quantum World-view’. It isn’t necessary to go into detail about this, since her worldview has become reasonably clear in the preceding chapters, and this one is indeed one of the shortest.

She discusses the importance of actually having a worldview, which is “a theme which integrates the sense of self, the sense of self and others, and the sense of how these relate to the wider world — to Nature and other creatures, to the environment as a whole, to the planet, the universe, and ultimately to God — to some overall purpose or sense of direction”. She then notes that, without a coherent worldview, “the sense of self and world disintegrates. We feel that we are ‘empty’, that our lives are ‘pointless’ or ‘absurd’, that ‘it’s all for nothing’. The alienation suffered at this level is a general spiritual alienation”. (The pointlessness of the universe and the absurdity of life is, of course, the worldview that we are invited to embrace by much of modern science and philosophy, notably Existentialism.)

She notes that the Judaeo-Christian viewpoint fulfilled the role for a long time, but that it “started to lose its coherence when the discoveries of modern science began to undermine many of the cosmological assumptions on which it rested”. Then a mechanical world-view was born, but this “could never really succeed. From the beginning, it was flawed by its inability to account for consciousness… (It) successfully gave us a science which explained things, and a technology to exploit them as never before, but the price paid was a kind of alienation at every level of human life”.

She criticises various worldviews for their inadequacies: Idealism, Materialism, Freudianism, “many strains of mysticism” (by which she means Eastern religions), Behaviourism, exaggerated Individualism, Marxism, Relativism of all sorts, and extreme Fundamentalism. She then notes that “in recent years, many people have begun to sense that the new physics, primarily quantum physics holds out the promise of a new world-view, one which would give some physical basis to a more holistic, less fragmented, way of looking at ourselves within the world”. (This promise of a new worldview is my purpose in writing this series.)

She thinks that this explains why there had been much literature, prior to her writing, about quantum physics and holism, Eastern mysticism, healing, psychic phenomena etc. However, “all have been partial and groping attempts to articulate something that is ‘in the air’… a need to find a unifying explanation of ourselves and our universe and a unifying foundation for our behaviour”. However, the problem is that “none has actually grounded this need itself in the actual physics of consciousness”. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that she offers the vision she has outlined in her book as the solution to these problems. These are some of her key statements:

  • “Once we have made this connection, once we have seen that the physics of human consciousness emerges from quantum processes within the brain and that in consequence human consciousness and the whole world of its creation shares a physics with everything else in the universe — with the human body, with all other living things and creatures, with the basic physics of matter and relationship and with the coherent state of the quantum vacuum itself — it becomes impossible to imagine a single aspect of our lives that is not drawn into one coherent whole”.
  • “The quantum world-view stresses dynamic relationship as the basis of all that is. It tells us that our world comes about through a mutually creative dialogue between mind and body, between the individual and his personal and material context, and between human culture and the natural world. It gives us a view of the human self which is free and responsible, responsive to others and to its environment, essentially related and naturally committed, and at every moment creative”.
  • “The creative dialogue between ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ is the physical basis of all creativity in the universe and is also the physical basis of human creativity. The quantum self experiences no dichotomy between the inner and the outer because the two, the inner world of mind… and the outer world of matter (of facts) give rise to each other”.
  • “In some very important sense we are all interdependent, and that our human lives are inseparably intertwined with the world of nature”.
  • “The quantum self thus mediates between the extreme isolation of Western individualism and the extreme collectivism of Marxism or Eastern mysticism”.

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That concludes my summary of Danah Zohar’s book. Apart from the obvious interest in observing how a quantum physicist approaches the problem of consciousness, and the interesting places that this takes her, the reason I’ve spent so much time discussing it, is that she has actually developed a quantum worldview, which goes beyond the science. She believes that this is a basis for living, so much so that soon afterwards she went on to write another book, together with her husband, called The Quantum Society. Since I’m very interested in politics and society, and since I think and write more from a spiritual point of view, it is important to understand just how far science can take us, whether it can truly offer us a political and social vision, or whether we need something more.

I suspect that a quantum worldview cannot completely fulfil this role, but it does pave the way for a reunification of science and religion which the world so badly needs. That would be a genuine foundation for a new way of living in tune with the universe. (At some point I might write about how adequate their quantum vision is.)

The weakness in her whole argument, as I see it, is that she repeats frequently her belief that consciousness arises from quantum processes within the brain. (Perhaps she cannot avoid this, given her starting point as a scientist.) This seems to be only one step removed from the materialism of those neuroscientists and philosophers who believe that consciousness/mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain, the only difference being that she takes into account the quantum aspects. She never seems to notice the fact that, according to her understanding, since matter itself arises from quantum processes, then the brain must also arise from quantum processes before it can give rise to the conscious self. In apparent contradiction to this viewpoint she says: “The quantum world-view transcends the dichotomy between mind and body, or between inner and outer, by showing us that the basic building blocks of mind (bosons) and the basic building blocks of matter (fermions) arise out of a common, quantum substrate (the vacuum) and are engaged in a mutually creative dialogue whose roots can be traced back to the very heart of reality creation”. Since she believes that the quantum vacuum may well be conscious, this suggests that both the brain and the self are the consequence of consciousness, therefore the self does not arise from quantum processes within the brain. She does not seem to notice this contradiction.

Even though I believe this is a weakness in her train of thought, I don’t think that it creates any serious objections to the overall picture that she paints, something approaching evolutionary panentheism, as discussed in the previous article, God both transcendent and immanent.

One of the problems she struggled with, how to account for the unity of the self in terms of the physics involved, would be much more easily solved if one adopts what is known as the Transmission Model, that the brain is an organ which filters and limits consciousness. In Western spiritual and esoteric traditions that consciousness would be called the soul, but that’s another story.

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