Quantum Physics and Spirituality — Part 2, the History

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In the first article in this series, I outlined why I think the quantum physics revolution is so important for the future of humanity. I concluded it by providing some quotes from the early pioneers who, in their search for the ultimate building-blocks of matter, discovered that they don’t actually exist, that matter is in fact immaterial. Here I’ll outline the ensuing history of this idea. Since it is obviously going to take a long time to work through and review all this material, my purpose here is simply to make readers aware of this history, in case anyone would like to do some research of their own into this fascinating topic.

The story is in two parts, with a dividing line in 1985. Relevant figures and books, in approximate chronological order, are:

  • Fred Alan Wolf, Space-Time and Beyond, 1975. This is an early attempt to draw parallels between quantum physics and the viewpoint of ancient religions. Even though the author is a physicist, this is not exactly an academic book. It almost seems to be aimed at children, full as it is with cartoons and pithy aphorisms. It is nevertheless a useful compendium of the ideas about the nature of reality from a quantum viewpoint. In a later book he wrote: “Quantum Mechanics, perhaps more clearly than any religion, points to the unity of the world”¹.
  • Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (1976). This is the first detailed exploration of the perceived relationship between the new science and the Ancient Wisdom.
  • Gary Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: an Overview of the New Physics (1979). A non-scientist describes twentieth century physics (both relativity and quantum) for the general public. The back cover, presumably written by the publisher, describes the book as “an absorbing guide to the mind-stretching mysteries of the new physics (which) points out striking parallels with modern psychology and eastern mysticism”.
  • Michael Talbot, Mysticism and the New Physics (1981). The back cover states: “The new physics, the physics of quantum theory, tells us what the mystics have been proclaiming for centuries”.

Other significant books from this early period, more scientific and referring not quite so specifically to mysticism, were:

  • David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980). He was the most spiritual of these later quantum physicists. This is his most significant book, which explores the idea of the material world emerging from other levels of reality, in agreement with spiritual traditions.
  • Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (1983). He is more restrained than some of these others. He sees himself as a conventional physicist, not wishing to rush to adopt mystical ideas, rather to expand the frontiers of science. He is nevertheless very open-minded about the problems of materialist science. The back cover says that he explains “how the recent far-reaching discoveries of the new physics are revolutionizing our view of the world and, in particular, throwing light on many of the questions formerly posed by religion”. The book discusses the creation of the universe, and contains chapters on Mind and Soul, the Self, the Quantum Factor, Time, the Fundamental Structure of Matter, and the Physicist’s Conception of Nature. He later wrote The Mind of God (1992).

At this point the story takes a strange twist. In 1985 Ken Wilber, Perennial Philosophist and prolific writer on spiritual matters, entered the debate with Quantum Questions². He says: “In the past decade there have appeared literally dozens of books (I must have missed some!), by physicists, philosophers, psychologists, and theologians, purporting to describe or explain the extraordinary relationship between modern physics, the hardest of sciences, and mysticism, the tenderest of religions. Physics and mysticism are fast approaching a remarkably common worldview, some say…”(p 3). Wilber wishes to challenge and put a brake on this tendency, and in this book quotes what the early physicists actually said. He claims that “these pioneering physicists did not believe that physics and mysticism share similar worldviews… (but) they nevertheless all became mystics”, and wonders why this is so (P ix).

I’m not sure how much influence this book had, but in the following period this tendency to compare quantum physics to mystical ideas seemed to change course, or at least be less explicit. Ironically, however, when in 1990 Norman Friedman wrote Bridging Science and Spirit, he chose Wilber as the spokesperson for the spiritual viewpoint, and David Bohm for quantum physics, concluding that they were saying essentially the same thing. The foreword was by Fred Alan Wolf (see above), who said: “The gap of understanding separating the two seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints of spirituality and science can be bridged… These two approaches aim toward the very same truths”.

In this later period, two trends are worth noting. Firstly, some physicists from a quantum viewpoint are critical of Darwinian evolutionary theory. (It is therefore reasonable to ask whether evolutionary biologists have taken on board the implications of quantum physics, the most successful scientific theory of all time.) Examples would be:

  • Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint
  • Danah Zohar, The Quantum Self
  • Amit Goswami, Creative Evolution
  • Also worth mentioning is the former Darwinian biologist Bruce Lipton, who completely changed his views following his discovery of quantum physics. He tells his story in The Biology of Belief.

Secondly, following the quantum revolution, physicists suddenly became very interested in the nature of consciousness. This was a general preoccupation, but some of the more important examples are:

  • Danah Zohar’s The Quantum Self. In one of her later chapters she dares to bring God into the discussion about the implications of quantum physics.
  • Fred Alan Wolf’s Mind and the New Physics
  • Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind
  • Amit Goswami’s The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World.

Despite this apparent consensus in favour of a connection between spirituality and quantum physics, a small minority of physicists remain unconvinced, impervious to all these arguments. The most strident of the opponents, as far as I am aware, is the late Victor Stenger, author of The Unconscious Quantum, clearly a provocative title given the idealist tendencies of the majority of quantum physicists. He is also the author of God the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist (no comment.)

Also noteworthy is Jim Al-Khalili, physics professor and populariser of science for BBC TV and radio. He is a physicist who does research into quantum biology; he nevertheless describes himself as an atheist and in 2013 become president of the British Humanist Association. I assume he hasn’t read much of the above literature!

The latest development, at the time of writing, is that Carlo Rovelli, theoretical physicist and populariser of science, has a new book out called Helgoland in which he attempts to explain quantum physics to the general public. I haven’t read it yet, but I heard him being interviewed on the radio for an hour last week. Two points stood out. Firstly, he would appear to be returning to what Fritjof Capra started, pointing out the connection with Eastern religions, since he has a chapter on the Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna. (I understand from a review that he also reflects on Hinduism.)

Secondly, he is making the controversial claim that quantum entanglement (action-at-a-distance) is not real, but illusory (one review does say that he is putting his own interpretation of quantum physics centre stage). That will be an interesting read.

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Click here for the next article in the series.

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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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Footnotes:

1. Taking the Quantum Leap, Harper and Row, 1989, p249

2. Shambhala, 1985

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