Yet More Quantum Physics and Spirituality
Medium writer Armand Diaz has had the interesting idea of promoting some of his articles from 2022 which readers may have missed, and which he thought deserved more attention. As I enjoy his writing, and am very interested in his ideas, I followed this up and it proved to be an educational and entertaining hour or so. However, somewhat to my surprise I came across an article in his thread entitled ‘Six Reasons You Should Stop Referring to Quantum Physics When Talking About Spirituality (and one situation where it’s okay)’.
I’ve written much on the apparent connection between quantum physics and spirituality in the past (see this list), and am intending a further article about it soon. I recently had an exchange of views on this theme with Paul Austin Murphy, who also thinks that the two should not be connected. This did not lead to either of us changing our viewpoint. He seems to be opposed to spiritual ideas and the philosophy of idealism, so this was not altogether surprising. Diaz, however, is very interested in spirituality, and what some would consider weird ideas. I was therefore intrigued to read what he had to say on this issue.
I’ll go through his reasons why he thinks one ought not to make the spirit-physics connection, and offer some observations.
Diaz: “Physics describes the material universe, spirituality deals with spirit. These are different orders of existence. Of course, in a sense spirituality deals with everything, but you can’t expect spiritual truths to graft onto physical phenomena in a direct way… What works in one order of existence may very well be irrelevant in another”.
Me: I disagree. Classical physics attempted to describe the material universe, perhaps assuming that this is all that exists. Quantum physics, however, strongly suggests that there is an unknown level of reality beyond the material, from which the material emerges. It can therefore be seen as an important bridge between traditional physics and the hidden spiritual level or levels — a pointer to their existence.
Diaz: “You don’t understand quantum physics. Unless you’re a physicist, that is (and maybe even then)… What’s really going on and what it means is uncertain — and don’t forget that even physicists argue about the data and how it should be interpreted”.
Me: Agreed, especially in my case (but wait to see my conclusion at the end of the article).
Diaz: “The quantum level is only one level of physical reality. Just as we should keep the domains of material and spiritual separate, we should remember that both are multi-levelled. What’s true at the quantum level probably isn’t true at the macroscopic level… On what basis would we assert that the quantum level is more real than the macroscopic level on which we live, and so makes for a better guide?
Me: These statements are at the very least debatable. In particular, I’m not sure that the quantum level can be described as physical. On the contrary, it seems to be a non-material level from which the physical universe emerges. Quantum physicists talk about tendencies to exist. Can that be interpreted as the possibility of becoming matter? They also say that the universe appears to be a dynamic web of interconnected and inseparable energy patterns, or fields. Are energy patterns and fields material?
Diaz: “The understanding of the quantum world could change”. There is always the possibility of new data emerging. “So, if some unsolvable paradox in physics gets solved, whoops! there goes spirit!”
Me: Yes, but all science is provisional. It is the best consensus that scientists can come up with at any point in history. Some science seems more fixed and unlikely to change, for example, the chemical formulae for the elements. The world of physics seems much less fixed, however. We once had classical Newtonian physics. This was then revised to include the ideas of Einstein. Then came the quantum physics revolution, which has been described as the most successful theory of all time. Nevertheless, it is still claimed by those in the know to be incompatible with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (which is also considered to be true), so that a Theory of Everything which synthesises the two is awaited.
We are therefore expecting some kind of revision to quantum theory. Does that mean that we should hesitate about making a connection with spirituality? Not necessarily for, as far as I’m aware, those advocating this relationship do not suggest any detailed and specific correspondences with the science; they merely point to some general ideas. In any event, let’s wait for this Grand Theory to arrive, before deciding how it affects our thinking about spirituality.
Diaz: “Spiritual understanding doesn’t need physics”.
Me: Agreed. However, that is all very well if one is steeped in and a believer in spiritual traditions and literature, for example Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, the Vedas and Upanishads. However, in an increasingly secular and anti-religious age, any evidence from science that there might be some truth in these traditions should be welcomed. One should of course make sure that any such claims are well-founded, not merely clutching at straws.
Diaz: “Equating the language of physics and spirit is doubly confounding”, since both use imprecise and inadequate metaphors and stories. He concedes, however that “some of the stories from physics and some of the stories from spirituality have a remarkable similarity”. He thinks, however, that “that shouldn’t inspire too much confidence”.
Me: He doesn’t elaborate on that last point so I would ask, how much confidence then? It is presumably reasonable to try to account for these remarkable similarities. Are they pointing to something meaningful, or are they merely bizarre coincidences?
Despite our different starting points on this issue, there is much to agree with so far. Following all these reservations, Diaz then concedes that there is one occasion when “it is okay to make a comparison (not an equation) of spirit and physics”, and this has to be done very carefully. I’ll quote his conclusion in full: “Spirituality seems very strange when viewed against a mechanistic, materialistic paradigm, but less so when seen in comparison to the quantum world. That doesn’t make it okay to say that spirituality is true (or spirit is real) because of quantum physics, but it is okay to point out that the world of spirit is no more kooky than the world of physics, for whatever that’s worth”.
Me: It is certainly not okay to say that spirituality is true because of quantum physics (and I don’t think I have ever done so). I nevertheless think that Diaz is undervaluing the apparent connections; I believe that there is more to it than he suggests here. I’m going to try to formulate a statement which I believe to be 100% true, beyond dispute.
Not all, but a significant number of physicists (not new-Agey types merely jumping on the bandwagon), based upon their understanding of the results of scientific quantum experiments and their interpretation of them, have made statements of a philosophical nature which strongly suggest correspondences with the beliefs of spiritual traditions, and the philosophy of idealism, most frequently Buddhism.
It remains, of course, an open question whether they were right to do so, so the debate can continue.
I might add that these were not fringe figures that you won’t have heard of, rather some of the highly significant figures at the heart of the quantum physics revolution: Werner Heisenberg, Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli, and Erwin Schrödinger (although it should be said that he had previously formed his Vedantist views). Other significant early figures were Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans.
In modern times, even the distinctly unspiritual Carlo Rovelli, in his book Helgoland, finds impressive correspondences between his relational interpretation of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna.
It’s also interesting that Norman Friedman, in his book Bridging Science and Spirit, found close parallels between the ideas of the less mainstream quantum physicist David Bohm and Ken Wilber, prolific writer on spirituality and the Perennial Philosophy, even though Wilber had previously rejected the connection, using similar arguments to Diaz. (I’ve written about that here and here.)
There are some spiritual themes about which quantum physics is clearly unable to offer anything meaningful: the afterlife, reincarnation, the existence of discarnate entities, how to achieve ESP, and so on. There is therefore a definite dividing line there. There are nevertheless some recurrent themes from quantum physics which are consistent with spiritual teachings, most obviously that the material world as we perceive it is an illusion and, most importantly, contrary to the belief of physicalism, that this material world emerges from a different level of reality. Or as the rock band the Byrds put it so succinctly: “Change is now, change is now. Things that seemed to be solid are not”.
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.