The Quantum Physics Revolution and Spirituality — a Further Defence
This is a follow-up to my previous article which was a critique of an article by Paul Austin Murphy entitled ‘Why the Advocates of Spirituality and Idealism Hijack the Words of Quantum Physicists’. Murphy has responded here, where he has disagreed with my critique. I have further replied here. It isn’t necessary to have read either of these in order to understand what follows. He concludes, however: “I doubt that you will shift even a millimetre on any of this… And, no doubt, you’ll think exactly the same about me”. This would seem to be a correct assessment of the exchange of views.
The crux of his argument is that there is nothing in the science of quantum physics which proves a spiritual worldview, so that when quantum physicists make statements which suggest significant parallels, these are merely their interpretations of the scientific results, which are therefore debatable. He objects when non-scientists of a spiritual, idealist, New-Age persuasion quote such statements in support of their views.
This is all perfectly reasonable, and I completely agree. However, when so many physicists make comparable statements based upon their understanding of the science, I believe that we should at least take note of these statements, and seriously consider them. So here I’m going to examine a couple of these statements in more depth. Since Murphy also complains that the same (few) quotes by the same physicists are frequently repeated by believers in spirituality, I will focus here on the actual physics, thus the best scientific knowledge as currently understood, which leads the physicists to make such statements. I would be interested to know what alternative explanations Murphy can offer for these phenomena from a non-spiritual perspective.
(When I write on Medium I usually provide all the references for any quotes. Here, since I’ve extracted the material from a talk I once gave where I didn’t give the sources to the audience, I don’t have them all to hand. I apologise for this, but can assure readers that I’ve found all the following material in published books.)
A key idea in a spiritual worldview is the interconnectedness of the universe; it is said to be one undivided whole. Evidence from quantum physics for this idea is the phenomenon known variously as non-locality, action-at-a-distance, or quantum entanglement. The idea is that two separate but paired particles are interconnected in some way no matter how far apart they are. If an experimenter affects one of the particles, its paired particle responds instantaneously and also changes.
The phenomenon is not in doubt. Thus physicist Danah Zohar writes in The Quantum Self: “At the subatomic level, such correlation experiments have now been carried out many times on pairs of correlated photons, and the non-local influences which bind their life styles have been proven many times over. The photons’ behaviour patterns are so eerily linked across any spatial separation — it could be a few centimetres, it could be all the way across the universe — that it appears there is no space between them”.
There are two interpretations offered for this phenomenon. Either the particles are communicating with each other instantaneously by means of some kind of signal, which would have to be faster than the speed of light. If that is literally true, then this communication would suggest consciousness. (Idealists believe that nothing exists except forms of consciousness. Panpsychists believe that matter is conscious in some sense.) Since faster-than-light communication is believed to be impossible, the alternative explanation has been proposed that the particles must be connected in some way that defies classical conceptions of causality. That would suggest an interconnected universe in line with the beliefs of spirituality.
Apparently in support of such an interpretation, physicist Max Planck said: “In modern mechanics… it is impossible to obtain an adequate version of the laws for which we are looking, unless the physical system is regarded as a whole. According to modern field theory, each individual particle of the system, in a certain sense, at any one time, exists simultaneously in every part of the space occupied by the system”.
In that example, conscious particles communicating with each other was considered the less likely of the two options. Another key idea in a spiritual worldview, however, is that there is no such thing as inanimate matter, that everything that exists has some form of consciousness. This would open up the possibility of communication, although most people, myself included, would find it hard to understand how two particles could communicate with each other instantaneously over vast distances.
There are nevertheless experiments which suggest that particles might be conscious. They appear to know information about experiments, and act as if intelligent.
The first example is the famous double-slit experiment, which involves sending individual particles such as photons or electrons, one at a time, towards an observation screen. On the way they have to pass through two openings or slits which have been cut into an otherwise opaque barrier. If you merely monitor the particle landing on the screen after its journey through the slits, the photon or electron seems to behave like a wave, ostensibly going through both slits at once, and creating an interference pattern. If, however, you choose to look to see which slit the particle goes through, it takes one of the two possible paths, therefore behaving like a photon, thus a particle.
So here we apparently have the photon behaving in different ways, responding to the intentions of the experimenter. How is it able to do this? Does it know the details of the experiment in advance?
This experiment therefore introduced the problem of wave-particle duality. Physicists were uncomfortable about this and wanted to know whether the photon is ‘really’ a wave or a particle. They therefore devised some ingenious experiments in an attempt to ‘outwit’ the photon into revealing its true identity. These are described by Anil Ananthaswamy, a staff writer at New Scientist magazine, but his conclusion is that “you cannot fool the photon no matter how hard you try”. If a photon never fails to outwit the experimenter, does that imply that it is conscious? Commenting on the double-slit experiment, he also suggests that “all particles in the Universe are influenced instantly by a form of nonlocality that would make Einstein wince”. Spiritual people might suggest that some form of cosmic mind could be responsible for this.
A second example is as follows. Physicist Richard Feynman noticed that no matter how an object moved, it balanced out energies so as to use as little action as possible. He asks: “How does the particle find the right path? … All your instincts on cause and effect go haywire when you say that the particle decides to take the path that is going to give the minimum action. Does it ‘smell’ the neighbouring paths to find out whether or not they have more action?”
It is actually possible to “fool light into taking the wrong paths”. In this context, Feynman discusses a phenomenon called diffraction, the bending and interfering of light with itself, which is accomplished by blocking the natural light paths. Feynman states: “When we put blocks in the way so that the photons could not test all the paths, we found that they couldn’t figure out which way to go”. Thus the photons appeared to be trying to solve a problem. Although they failed, this suggests consciousness and intelligence.
So particles appear to be conscious. This explains why spiritually oriented people might quote such material in support of their views. The critical word of course is ‘appear’. Are particles conscious, or do they merely appear to be conscious? If the latter, what could cause them to appear to be conscious?
Here is physicist Danah Zohar discussing David Bohm’s views on this phenomenon: “He compares the movements of electrons in the laboratory to those of ballet dancers responding to a musical score, the score itself constituting ‘a common ‘pool’ of information that guides each of the dancers as he takes his steps… Each electron is sensitive not just to the information, or meaning, latent in its own wave packet (its own part in the score). It is also non-locally responsive to the information latent in the whole situation… For Bohm, this sharing of information, this mutual ‘knowing’, may represent elementary conscious awareness on the part of the electron”.
If an electron is non-locally responsive to the information latent in the whole situation, one wonders what might be responsible for this. What exactly is the ‘whole situation’? An interconnected universe perhaps.
One of the basic beliefs of pre-quantum science was summed up in the word reductionism. Life may appear to be incredibly complex, but it was assumed that, if we keep reducing it to ever smaller building blocks, at its basic level it will prove to be very simple. This was of course the original motivation for quantum physics — to discover the nature of the even smaller building blocks of the atom. (Their motivation was not to seek confirmation of their spiritual worldview.)
Here, however, David Bohm turns reductionism on its head: “As you probe more deeply into matter, it appears to have more and more subtle properties… In my view, the implications of physics seem to be that nature is so subtle that it could be almost alive or intelligent”.
If all this is true, this leads us tentatively in the direction of panpsychism, or even idealism. It is not surprising therefore that spiritually oriented people refer to such material as possible support for their views. The physicist Fred Alan Wolf, however, does not hold back: “Atoms with consciousness, matter with curiosity? Are these peculiar statements for a physicist? I don’t think so. They are simply recognitions of undeniable facts”. He is perhaps rushing hastily to this conclusion, overstating the case, but we can perhaps understand why he might say this.
Another key spiritual idea is that the universe is not as it appears to us. It is supposedly physical, yet this is considered to be an illusion. Mind or consciousness is considered more primary than matter; the material universe is believed to emerge from other levels of mind and spirit. This was also the conclusion of physicists in the early days of the quantum revolution. I assume that their statements were based on the scientific evidence, but they could probably be more accurately described as their interpretations, thus more philosophical. I quoted Sir James Jeans, Werner Heisenberg, Sir Arthur Eddington and Max Planck on that theme in the previous article, so won’t repeat all that here.
To conclude, more along the lines of light entertainment, the parapsychologist Lawrence LeShan plays the following game. He produces various quotes, then asks his readers to decide whether they come from a physicist or a mystic, suggesting that it is hard to tell the difference. Here are some of the quotes from physicists. Murphy might consider them philosophical and non-scientific, even lyrical. I am still left wondering what science led these physicists to say such things.
- Arthur Eddington: “The value placed on permanence creates the world of apparent substance; in this sense, perhaps, the God within creates the God in nature”.
- Arthur Eddington again: “The stuff of the world is mind stuff”.
- Erwin Schrödinger: “The reason why our sentient, percipient, and thinking ego is met nowhere in our world picture can easily be indicated in seven words: because it is ITSELF that world picture. It is identical with the whole and therefore cannot be contained in it as part of it”.
- Werner Heisenberg: “We realise more and more that our understanding of nature cannot begin with some definite cognition… but that all cognition is, so to speak, suspended over an infinite abyss”.
- Sir James Jeans: “The material world… constitutes the whole world of appearance, but not the whole world of reality; we may think of it as forming only a cross section of the world of reality”.
Paul Austin Murphy has replied to this article here, and I have further responded here. It’s worth noting that, despite my invitation, he offers no comments on, nor alternative explanations for, the experiments discussed here.
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 of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.