Quantum Physics, Spirituality, and Ken Wilber

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This is the latest in a series about the relationship between quantum physics and a spiritual worldview. (For details of what has preceded, with links, please see the opening paragraph of the previous article.) The reason I find this such an important and exciting topic is that it offers a much needed opportunity for a reunification of science and religion.

There is no doubt in my mind that this relationship is real, based upon the statements made by various physicists. So far in the series I have quoted Werner Heisenberg, Sir Arthur Eddington, Sir James Jeans, Max Planck, Fred Alan Wolf, and Fritjof Capra, and also summarised The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, and Mysticism and the New Physics by Michael Talbot, both of which support the essential claim that there is a strong and meaningful connection between the findings of quantum physics and Eastern religions, thus a spiritual worldview.

However, in 1984 Ken Wilber published Quantum Questions¹, in which he claimed that this connection does not exist, and quoted extensively eight famous physicists in order to make his point. He is deeply knowledgeable about spiritual matters, a prolific author about them, and it is therefore not easy to dismiss the claims of such a heavyweight figure. So here I’m going to look at his objections, and see what response is possible. I assume that his book is not very well known, so I’ll summarise his argument at some length.

It’s not that Wilber disagrees with the beliefs of either mysticism or quantum physics; it’s just that he thinks that they have no relationship with each other. In his preface he makes his basic claim that “modern physics offers no positive support (let alone proof) for a mystical worldview”, yet points out that all the physicists he quotes were mystics. They believed “that if modern physics no longer objects to a religious world view, it offers no positive support either; properly speaking, it is indifferent to all that”. The view that “modern physics automatically supports or proves mysticism” is now widespread and deeply entrenched, but believes this to be false. “Genuine mysticism, precisely to the extent that it is genuine, is perfectly capable of offering its own defence, its own evidence, its own claims, and its own proofs”.

Then in his introduction he says: “In the past decade there have appeared literally dozens of books, 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”.

He then gives a history of those who have rushed to claim the latest developments in science either as evidence for the validity of their worldview, or of their horror that they suggest the opposite. Thus Einstein’s theory of relativity has been variously claimed to suggest both atheism and “a scientific formula for monotheism”. “The works of James Jeans and Arthur Eddington were greeted by cheers from the pulpits all over England — modern physics supports Christianity in all essential respects!” Wilber points out that neither Jeans and Eddington agreed with this conclusion, and in fact disagreed with one another in their interpretation.

It should be pointed out that, while what Wilber says here may be true, it does not advance his argument. He is merely demonstrating that religious believers do not necessarily have an understanding of the subtle details of scientific theory, and are only too happy to cite anything as evidence for the truth of their views. I wouldn’t disagree.

He then says: “Today we hear of the supposed relation between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, Bootstrap theory, Bell’s theorem, the implicate order, the holographic paradigm — all of this is supposed to prove (or is it disprove?) Eastern mysticism. In all essential respects it is simply the same story with different characters”. That is simply not true. These are all theories proposed by professional scientists — Bootstrap theory by Geoffrey Chew, endorsed by Capra, the implicate order by David Bohm, and the holographic paradigm by Nobel Laureate Karl Pribram and Bohm. What Wilber would need to demonstrate is how such important figures have got it wrong, not sneakily try to reduce them to the level of Catholic Cardinals, Rabbis, and members of the Anglican community.

Wilber’s principal complaint is that physics can never have anything meaningful to say about the true issues of religion, the higher levels of reality, thus spirit and soul. The physicists he chooses to quote in support of his argument are: Einstein, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, Eddington, Pauli, de Broglie, Jeans, and Planck. He says that “these theorists are virtually unanimous in declaring that modern physics offers no positive support whatsoever for mysticism or transcendentalism of any variety”. Any similarities “where they are not purely accidental, are trivial when compared with the vast and profound differences between them” (p5). In support of this point of view he quotes:

  • Eddington, who had “had a deeply mystical outlook”, but who said: “I do not suggest that the new physics ‘proves religion’ or indeed gives any positive grounds for religious faith… For my own part I am wholly opposed to any such attempt”².
  • Schrödinger: “Physics has nothing to do with it. Physics takes its start from everyday experience, which it continues by more subtle means… it cannot enter into another realm”³. Religion’s “true domain is far beyond anything in reach of scientific explanation”⁴.
  • Max Planck, whose view “was that science and religion deal with two very different dimensions of existence, between which, he believed, there can properly be neither conflict nor accord”. (This is Wilber summarising Planck’s viewpoint.)
  • Sir James Jeans: “There has been much discussion of late of the claims of (‘scientific support’ for ‘transcendental events’). Speaking as a scientist, I find the alleged proofs totally unconvincing; speaking as a human being, I find most of them ridiculous as well”⁵.

This all sounds fairly conclusive. The problem, however, is that those that Wilber is criticising completely agree with such statements. As I noted in the previous article, Capra says that there is an “invisible universe underlying, embedded in, and forming the fabric of everything around us”. I’ve also quoted Fred Alan Wolf: “We only know that there is something other than space-time but we don’t know what it is, because beyond space-time is nonphysical, unmeasurable”. So these physicists agree absolutely that there are hidden dimensions or realms of existence about which physics can say nothing (yet still insist on the relationship between quantum physics and a spiritual worldview). Their statements are barely distinguishable from these quoted by Wilber:

  • Jeans: “We can never understand what events are, but must limit ourselves to describing the patterns of events in mathematical terms; no other aim is possible… Our studies can never put us into contact with reality”.
  • Eddington: “We have learnt that the exploration of the external world by the methods of physical science leads not to a concrete reality but to a shadow world of symbols, beneath which those methods are unadapted for penetrating”, and “it (is) almost self-evident that (physics) is a partial aspect of something wider”.

The important point, therefore, is that they acknowledge that these hidden levels exist, which is in contrast to the philosophies of materialism and physicalism, and their close relation atheism. That is the true significance of the discoveries of quantum physics, that the ‘physical’ universe emerges from other non-material levels of reality.

We can also note that Wilber has been very selective in his quoting, for the same Sir James Jeans also said: “The universe is looking less like a great machine, and more like a great thought”. The same Max Planck also said: “There is no matter as such! All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together… We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter”. Both these statements are in complete agreement with the viewpoint of Eastern religions; the fact that physics cannot observe, and therefore has nothing to say about the nature of this conscious and intelligent mind is not the point.

Schrödinger may have believed that physics cannot enter into this other realm, but he had no doubt that it existed. As Wilber says, he was “probably the greatest mystic in this group”, and completely embraced Vedantism, thus Eastern religion (see, for example his My View of the World⁶). The same Sir Arthur Eddington said: “The external world of physics has thus become a world of shadows. In removing our illusions we have removed the substance, for indeed we have seen that substance is one of the greatest of our illusions”. Here he is clearly referring to Plato’s allegory of the cave. Therefore, even though he is acknowledging that physics is only dealing with shadows and not ultimate reality, he is at least stating clearly that this is the case, and by implication is accepting the existence of the light casting those shadows.

Contrary to what Wilber says, therefore, his physicists are offering at least some form of positive support for transcendentalism. In that context, he also says: “It cannot be claimed that these men were simply unaware of the mystical writings of the East and West… Their writings are positively loaded with references to the Vedas, the Upanishads, Taoism, Buddhism, Pythagoras, Plato, Berkeley, Plotinus, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Kant, virtually the entire pantheon of perennial philosophers, and they still reached the above-mentioned conclusions”. We can turn this argument on its head, however. Why on earth would the writings of these physicists be loaded with such references, if they did not think them highly relevant to the topic?

It’s also worth pointing out that the physicists he chooses to quote all come from the early, first generation of quantum physicists. Science does not stand still, however, and later developments need to be taken into account. For example, his physicists all wrote before the advent of Bell’s theorem, and the eventual proof of non-locality. This new development must surely have added significantly to the general theory.

There are some strange moments in Wilber’s argument:

1. He focuses upon the idea of “all things being mutually interrelated in a holistic way”. He believes that this is not true but that, even if it were, it would be trivial “for it tells us nothing the old physics couldn’t tell us”, claiming that “according to Newtonian physics, everything in the universe was related to everything else by instantaneous action-at-a-distance, a holistic concept if ever there was one” (p24). This seems to me somewhat bizarre, and I’ve never come across anyone else making such a claim. It is hard to see how Newton’s universe could be described as mechanistic, which is the general consensus, if that were the case.

2. Capra seems to be the principal target of Wilber’s complaints. He says that “Fritjof Capra has, I believe, considerably modified his views, but in The Tao of Physics, for instance, he put much stake in bootstrap theory (which says that there are no irreducible things, only self-consistent relationships) and equated this with the Buddhist mystical doctrine of mutual interpenetration. But nowadays virtually all physicists believe there are irreducible things (quarks, leptons, gluons) that arise out of broken symmetries” (p27).

However, in the afterword to the second edition of The Tao of Physics, written in 1983, a year before Wilber, Capra said that new developments in physics since the first edition “have not invalidated any of the parallels to Eastern thought but, on the contrary, have enforced them”. In the afterword to the third edition (1992) he is still highly praising Geoffrey Chew, originator of the bootstrap theory: “I have no doubt that future historians of science will judge his contribution to twentieth-century physics as significant as (the other great founders)” (p360). There is therefore no suggestion whatsoever of any modification of his views.

It’s also not clear what Wilber means by ‘irreducible things’. This sounds something like the basic building-blocks of matter, which most physicists have agreed don’t exist. In similar vein he says: “In the greatest irony of all, this whole approach is profoundly reductionistic… Claiming that all things are ultimately made of subatomic particles is thus the most reductionistic stance imaginable!” (p27) However, physicists do not think that all things are ‘made of’ subatomic particles, rather that such thinking is part of the illusion, and that all ‘things’ arise from patterns of organic energy (Wu Li), and are therefore shadows, i.e. non-material.

3. Werner Heisenberg is one of the physicists that Wilber quotes extensively in support of his argument. You would think therefore that there would be little common ground between Capra and Heisenberg. However, Capra says that Heisenberg was a major source of inspiration for him, especially his book Physics and Philosophy: “I can see that it was Heisenberg who planted the seed of The Tao of Physics”. Furthermore, he had several long discussions with Heisenberg in the early 1970s, and he went through the manuscript with him chapter by chapter, thanking him for his “personal support and inspiration” (p360). It is reasonable to conclude therefore that Heisenberg, contrary to Wilber’s claims, endorsed wholeheartedly the thesis of Capra’s book.

I can therefore find nothing in Wilber’s argument to seriously challenge the basic claim that the quantum physics revolution offers support to a spiritual worldview. His claim that mysticism and meditation can give direct, unmediated experience of levels beyond the reach of physics is almost certainly true, but is not relevant. I don’t understand why such an intelligent and knowledgeable person could fail to see the weaknesses in his argument. I can only assume that he was trying to appear clever by bucking the trend.

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. Shambhala Publications

(The following references are as provided by Wilber.)

2. New Pathways in Science, Macmillan, 1935, pp307–8

3. Science, Theory, and Man, Dover, 1957, p204

4. Nature and the Greeks, Cambridge University Press, 1954, p8

5. Living Philosophies, p117

6. Cambridge University Press, 1964

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