The more I contemplate what quantum physics is telling us, the more my mind gets blown into phantasmal traces of nonexistent subatomic particles. Studying quantum theory is like ingesting a mind-altering, time-release psychedelic. Taking in what quantum physics is revealing to us about the universe … it activates the psyche, inspires the imagination and synchronistically dissolves the boundary between mind and matter.
Quantum theory is not just one of many theories in physics; it is the one theory that has profoundly affected nearly every other branch of physics. There is hardly an aspect of contemporary society or of our own individual lives that has not already been fundamentally transformed by the ideas and applications of quantum physics. One third of our economy involves products based on quantum mechanics – things such as computers and the Internet, lasers, MRI’s, TV’s, DVD’s, CD’s, microwaves, electron microscopes, mobile phones, transistors, silicon chips, semiconductors, quartz and digital watches, superconductors and nuclear energy. And yet, even with the huge impact quantum physics has had on all of our lives, this effect is infinitesimally small compared with what it will be when more of us recognize and internalize the implications of what it is revealing to us about the nature of reality as well as of ourselves.
To quote theoretical physicist Henry Stapp, “Yet along with this fatal power it [science] has provided a further offering which, though subtle in character and still hardly felt in the minds of men, may ultimately be its most valuable contribution to human civilization, and the key to human survival.” Do we use the discoveries of quantum physics for the betterment of our species, or to destroy ourselves? Quantum theory reflects back to us that the choice is truly ours.
Quantum physics works like a charm. It is like a higher-dimensional talisman, a physics of possibilities. It is as if physics has discovered a wonderful magic wand that works every time, but the amazing thing is that no one knows why.
I have absolutely no authority to comment on the nuts and bolts physics of things, which I literally know nothing about. Most of us have no idea, have been ill-informed and left out in the dark regarding these over-the-top discoveries that have everything to do with the ultimate nature of the reality in which we live our everyday lives. Speaking about the public’s ignorance regarding the earth-shaking discoveries in the new physics, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Isaac Rabi simply says, “It’s a great pity.” With reference to quantum physics, what we don’t know can hurt us. In our modern age, scientific literacy has become a political and moral necessity. In our inquiry, we should prepare to be astonished.
2. PARTICIPATORY UNIVERSE
A professor emeritus at Princeton, [physicist John Archibald] Wheeler has been called a “sage of modern physics,” as well as, after Einstein and Bohr, “the last of the greats.” A mentor to Richard Feynman, he was an inspiring teacher for many of the greatest and most innovative physicists of our current day. His goal was to plant ideas deep in the minds of his students which, like time-release capsules, might find some way to flower five, ten or fifty years later. To say he was an out-of-the-box, creative thinker would be an understatement; for Wheeler the box that he was “out of” was a higher-dimensional hyper-cube which existed in the realm of the imagination. Many of his fellow scientists are convinced that his insights into the foundation of modern-day physics will spur a revolution in our perception of the universe. Truly a legend in the physics community, Wheeler’s impact on the field of modern day physics is hard to overstate.
As Wheeler has pointed out, the majority of developments in science have come out of asking the right questions. To quote Heisenberg, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” The questions we ask are determined by our way of thinking. What we think about and how we perceive the world seems as if it subtly affects reality at a very deep and basic quantum level, thereby informing and modifying the underlying fabric out of which third-dimensional reality emerges. What we wonder about alters the way in which reality presents itself to us. We ourselves create the reality of human experience with the questions we ask and the procedures that we undertake to find the answers to them.
It is easy to assume that when we ask questions of nature, of the world seemingly outside of ourselves, that there is an actual reality existing independently of what can be said about it. The universe is an on-going, continually unfolding revelation, speaking to and from something within ourselves. We can “divinize” the universe by learning to recognize its oracular nature. Parsifal-like, we have to ask the right question. To quote Wheeler, “The question is what is the question?” The issue of how to ask the question and when it is asked plays an important role in what answer we get. What is the universe revealing to us? Wheeler comments, “No question? No answer!”
Classical physics, the physics that existed before the discovery of quantum physics, was about uncovering what were thought to be the pre-existent laws of a separately existing universe that objectively existed independent of observation. Quantum physics obliterated the classical notion of an independently existing world forever. To quote Wheeler, “Nothing is more important about quantum physics than this: it has destroyed the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there.’ The universe will never afterwards be the same.” Quantum physics forever shattered the idea of there being an objectively existing world – it has proven that there is no such thing!
It is ironic that physics, long considered the most “objective” of all the sciences, in pursuing its dedicated quest to understand the deep nature of the material universe, has dispelled the very notion of an objective universe. According to quantum theory, the idea of a world independent of our observation has conventional meaning, but ultimately speaking, is incorrect. Our perception of the universe is a part of the universe happening through us that has an instantaneous effect on the universe we are observing. It makes no sense to think of ourselves as a self-enclosed, encapsulated, independent agent existing separate from the universe. Quantum theory [shows that] the observer, the observed and the act of observation are inseparably united.
In quantum physics, we are no longer passive witnesses of the universe, but rather, we unavoidably find ourselves in the new role of active participants who in-form, give shape to and in some mysterious sense “create” the very universe we are interacting with. Making this point, Wheeler says, “Useful as it is under everyday circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. There is a strange sense in which this is a ‘participatory universe.’”
[C]onsciousness in the domain of physics is totally natural, which is to say it is nature revealing one of her most intimate mysteries. To quote Nobel prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner, “through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.”
The prevailing mainstream view is that consciousness, or “philosophy,” is not supposed to be studied in a physics department. Anything that isn’t testable and can’t be measured is of no concern to most physicists. To the overwhelming majority of physicists, the role that consciousness plays in their experiments seems to be against the spirit of science – which in their view is always supposed to be impersonal and objective. And yet, like an uninvited, unwelcome guest at dinner, consciousness refuses to go away.
3. OBJECTIVE REALITY HANGOVER
Science, which, in Wheeler’s words “is an intensely human activity,” has a great effect on human beliefs. Oftentimes, the transition from one age to the next is triggered by a seemingly minute change in a single idea. Some of the most important science-generated beliefs that pervade our world are outdated and mistaken ideas that arose in science during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One such antiquated belief is the unquestioned assumption of an external, independent, objective universe with its concurrent shallow, limited and impoverished conception of how humankind fits into such an apparently objective world.
Relating to an after-image as if it still exists, many physicists are doing quantum physics─and successfully solving their equations─and yet, deep in their unconscious, are still subtly entranced in a classical mindset that sees the world as independently existing. To quote physicist F. David Peat, “A revolution had occurred in physics, but at a deeper level the same order prevailed. The new wine of quantum theory had merely been put in the old bottles of Cartesian order.”
Clinging to the idea of an objectively existing world is like holding on to the mistaken belief in a flat earth, all evidence to the contrary. Heisenberg writes, “The hope that new experiments will lead us back to objective events in space and time is about as well founded as the hope of discovering the end of the world in the unexplored regions of the Antarctic.”
Like the old “flat-earthers,” “objective-worlders” are holding onto to an inculcated unconscious belief, reinforced by several centuries of habit, that has now ineluctably been shown to be a make-believe figment of the human imagination. Wheeler openly wonders whether, in an interesting choice of words, we are “sleep-walking” if we think that we aren’t influencing the results of our experiments.
The objective world model which still has such a pervasive hold upon much of our species is a construct, literally a projection of a particular stage of human psycho-spiritual development. The quantum revolution has revealed that the classical worldview was something that existed entirely within the minds of a certain strain of European humanity that became reified into an orthodox creed and held the mind of modern humanity in a prison of its own making, as if humanity had become spellbound.
Providing a way out of this self-imposed prison, quantum physics heralds the advent of an altogether new stage of human psycho-spiritual evolution. What seems to be an independent universe is in actuality a play of appearances, a persistent and persuasive false imagination, an unexamined and clearly mistaken metaphysical assumption. As Wheeler wonders, “is IT all just a Magic Show?”
Our situation is similar to seeing a mirage of water in the desert, and either thinking that the apparition of water exists as actual water or seeing through the illusion and realizing it is a magical display of our mind.
Quantum theory has pushed its adherents to the very edge of the unknown, both out in the world and within themselves. In the classic book Quantum Theory and Measurement that Wheeler co-wrote with Wojciech Zurek, the authors write regarding the quantum, “What else is it but an unfamiliar animal, confined to an animal house? And how else can one better capture its newness than by walking around, looking at it through one window after another, seeking to combine fragmentary views into a total picture?”
When all of the various perspectives of the multi-faceted quantum reality are combined and looked at together, it gives us a greater resolution and capacity to see what no single vantage point can reveal. This confined, unfamiliar quantum animal is like a dream figure that exists within ourselves.
Physicists who are still entranced by the notion of an objective universe, with its concurrent exclusion of the observer, are simply unwittingly recreating the greatest failure of classical physics─its inability to find a place to accommodate us, its creators. […] In re-visioning our idea of the world we live in, we change our perception of the possibilities available in our world, thus opening up previously unimagined pathways of creative and effective action.
What most of us call objective reality is simply an interpretation of data whose meaning is agreed upon by the majority, what can be called a “consensus reality.” An inherently existing, objective world─something that has its “own nature” separate from something else─is a form existing only in the imagination. […] Wheeler highlights the subjective nature of the experience that is taking place inside of us when he more accurately uses the phrase “the image of something ‘out there.’” The apparent world “out there” has its roots in a field of sentience that is inextricably interwoven with the physical world while at the same time being shaped by the world of innumerable observers.
Einstein was troubled by quantum theory’s implication of the apparent role that the observer played in creating reality, feeling that it seemed incompatible with any reasonable idea of reality. In response, Bohr famously reflected back to Einstein that his “concept of reality is too limited.”
For many people the idea that there is no independent reality is “unthinkable,” an idea so off their map of reality that they can’t even imagine it. The projection of an inherently existing world outside of ourselves is a deeply ingrained, seemingly innate and habitual mode of perception. Old intellectual habits die hard; it can be difficult to let go of familiar, comfortable─and “tranquilizing”─ideas about the way the world works. Heisenberg emphasizes, “The idea of an objective real world whose smallest parts exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist, independently of whether or not we observe them … is impossible.”
According to our subjective experience the world certainly seems real enough, apparently contradicting what quantum physics is telling us about the world’s lack of inherent, objective reality. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the world behaves “as if” it has an independent reality, which furthers our visceral belief in objective reality in what becomes a self-perpetuating and mind-created feedback loop. In other words, because of the quantum, dreamlike (i.e., consciousness-based) nature of reality, once we view the universe “as if” it independently, objectively exists, it will manifest in a way which simply confirms our viewpoint. Nature seems to respond in accordance with the theory and beliefs by which it is approached.
At the end of the day science is empirical, and its theories must be grounded somehow, “in reality,” but where and, furthermore, what exactly is that reality? Another of the founders of quantum theory, Wolfgang Pauli comments, “I think the important and extremely difficult task of our time is to try to build up a fresh idea of reality.”
But where is the ontological ground upon which our impression of a really-existing universe─our idea of reality─rests? Speaking about reality, quantum theory brings the question to the fore: Are we discovering reality, or creating it? And if we are, at least in part, creating what we call reality, what are we creating it out of? Wheeler writes, “What we call reality consists of a few iron posts of observation between which we fill in by an elaborate papier-mache construction of imagination and theory.”
We “connect the dots” between a “few iron posts of observation” so as to create a seemingly coherent picture of our world, which we then easily imagine is reality itself. “Reality” is just a word in our language. What we “call” reality is simply a theory and internalized mental model which is at bottom a way of looking at the world, rather than a form of absolutely true knowledge of how the world “really” is. It is important not to conflate reality with our theories, not to confuse the map with the territory. Our best models are no more than aids to our imagination, by no means are they complete reflections of the nature of reality. There is a fine line between imagination, reality, and illusion.
Wheeler writes, “Recent decades have taught us that physics is a magic window. It shows us the illusion that lies behind reality─and the reality that lies behind illusion…. Today we demand of physics some understanding of existence itself.” It is as if there is a fissure in what we thought was reality, and quantum physics is the thread that is increasingly protruding through the crack that can potentially unravel our ideas about everything. Wheeler comments, “I continue to say that the quantum is the crack in the armor that covers the secret of existence.”
The Scientific Revolution was a deepening of our powers of reason, a flowering of human creativity and a breakthrough for humanity, helping us to explore our world in ever-more profound and ingenious ways. From another point of view which also contains an important truth, the Scientific Revolution that is now commonly associated with Isaac Newton’s (“Newtonian”) physics was also the onset of a particular form of madness. It started as a new worldview that was revolutionary in its power; yet it contained a subtle error that solidified into a widespread delusion which has over time profoundly enabled the collective psychosis that our species finds itself in.
An essential feature of this madness is the severing between the subject and object, the observer and the observed, as if the scientific imagination thought that in its intellectual examination of the world it wasn’t part of, participating in and thereby affecting that which it was investigating. This was done in pursuit of the ideal of objectivity, which was gradually elevated to the level of an absolute truth about the nature of reality. This approach worked remarkably well when it came to dealing with the macroscopic world, enabling unprecedented levels of control to be exerted over the physical world, but in this process of obtaining mastery over the physical plane an unseen cost was being incurred by the human spirit.
The modern scientific attitude which sees the world as objectively existing outside of itself─“scientific materialism”─is actually a deluded view expressing an epistemological blind spot in the very center of the predominating scientific vision of the world, a blindness of which modern society seems mostly unaware. Seeing the world as separate from ourselves has become the prevailing and institutionalized worldview of “the academy,” a viewpoint that takes the heart, soul and “magic” out of the world, reducing it to a dead, inanimate, insensate domain. Scientific materialism disenchants the world while simultaneously bewitching and casting a materialistic spell over its inhabitants.
The conceptual tension that arises between conflicting ideas can potentially become the source of creative insight. Wheeler comments, “Progress in science owes more to the clash of ideas than the steady accumulation of facts.” In our current day we are at a transition point, as two contradictory worldviews─the classical and the quantum─are encountering each other, not just in physics, but also deep within the human psyche, as it is ultimately the psyche from which all our physics is derived. It is the leaving behind of commonly agreed-upon truths that have been “outgrown” and shown to be wrong that helps to propel science and human civilization forward.
Is there a subtle form of teleology embedded in the observer’s role in the quantum world; in other words, are we being shown something, are we being led to a new way of seeing our world which will change the way our world manifests to us? Quantum theory implies that immaterial factors having more of the nature of images and ideas are the blue-print for our universe, actually in-forming and shaping the evolution of the universe as a whole. Wheeler goes so far as to liken the universe itself to an idea.
Wheeler comments, “Except it be that observership brings the universe into being what other way is there to understand that clue?” It is as if the universe itself is conspiring with us to help us awaken to its, and our nature, and quantum physics is the theoretical and experimental “instrument” for this deeper insight to reveal itself. To quote Wheeler, “Somewhere something incredible is waiting to happen.”
Wheeler refers to the old mechanistic viewpoint of the universe as a machine that goes its own inexorable way as a “cracked paradigm.” Commenting on the gifts that are embedded in the quantum realm, he says, “… not machinery but magic may be the better description of the treasure that is waiting.” Because of its results being a function of the experimental set-up, quantum measurements resemble good stage magic more than a clumsy meter reading.
Seen as a symbol crystallizing out of the dreamlike nature of reality, quantum physics is revealing to us that we don’t live in the mechanistic, Cartesian world of classical physics, but rather, inhabit an enchanted world not separate from our mind’s creative imagination.
5. THE LAWS OF PHYSICS
Physics has always [been] in search of the fundamental laws of the universe. Wheeler comments, “The beauty in the laws of physics is the fantastic simplicity that they have.” Quantum physics has raised the question, is the ever-evolving universe like a work of art in progress, making up its laws as it goes along?
Are the laws of physics an emergent property of the cosmos, which itself is emergent? Commenting on what quantum physics tells us about the laws of physics, Wheeler famously opined, “There is no law except the law that there is no law.” This is to say that the laws of physics are mutable, mutating in tune with the universe they support, in the same way that living organisms mutate. How can we believe that the laws of physics are eternal if the universe itself is not going to be around forever? To quote Wheeler, “Law cannot stand engraved on a tablet of stone for all eternity… all is mutable.”
This is a malleable, plastic universe. The laws and the physical universe they describe can only exist together, reciprocally co-arising and in-forming each other. It’s meaningless to talk about the laws of physics before the existence of a material reality in which these laws are enacted. The idea that the laws which inform the functioning of reality spring into manifestation out of nothingness fully formed is a nonsensical, preposterous idea. Wheeler comments, “The laws of physics were not installed in advance by a Swiss watchmaker, nor can they endure from everlasting to everlasting. They must have come into being. They could not always have been accurate. They are derivative and superficial, not primary and revelatory.”
The “flexi-laws” advocated by Wheeler evolve and focus in on precisely the forms needed to give rise to the living organisms that eventually observe them. Is observership the ultimate underpinning of the laws of physics, and therefore of the laws of space and time themselves? Quantum theory implies that observer-participants create both the physical laws and the appearance of the material world in which the laws apply. In our questioning about the nature of the universe and its laws, to quote Wheeler, “Could it be that the quantum is trying to tell us the answer?”
In Einstein’s opinion, “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe.” In trying to find some deeper structure that underlies the laws of physics, quantum physics is reflecting back to us that it is a mistake to think that as we penetrate to the universe’s deeper levels it will terminate at some nth level, or that it goes on ad infinitum. Rather, our inquiry leads back full-circle to the observer with which it began, as if the ethereal act of observership is the link that closes the circuit of interdependence between us and our world.
The central and all-encompassing role of the observer in quantum mechanics, what Wheeler refers to as the “magic ingredient,” is the most important clue we have regarding the construction of the universe. Wheeler asks, “Is the architecture of existence such that only through ‘observership’ does the universe have a way to come into being?” According to Wheeler, the universe is a self-referential “strange loop” in which physics gives rise to observers, who then give rise to information, which in turn gives rise to physics.
The construction of the universe is such that the observer is as essential to the creation of the universe as the universe is essential to the creation of the observer. It becomes extraordinarily difficult to state sharply and clearly where the community of observer-participants begins and where it ends; the boundary between the two is continually shifting.
The universe creates the conditions and paves the way for the emergence of the very observers that bestow upon it a certain reality, completing the transaction that allows the stars to shine, so to speak. In a world without a built-in purpose, quantum theory “promotes” the observer to the definer of reality and generator of meaning, which is essentially a creator of distinctions, a primordially creative role.
However we view it, we can’t get around the fact that we are participating in creating our experience of the universe. Wheeler says, “We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening.” Not only are we involved in bringing about what seems to be happening, we are intimately involved in creating our experience of ourselves as well.
Being a form of insight, physics is a form of art; as such, quantum physics is reflecting back to us the part of ourselves that is a creator of experience. Are physics’ insights into the participatory character of the universe, with all of its yet to be realized implications, just the tip of the iceberg? To quote from the wonderful book Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, “If our observation creates everything, including ourselves, we are dealing with a concept that is logically self-referential─and mind-boggling.”
Quantum physics simultaneously boggles, blows and melts our mind, which is to say that as we take in and digest what quantum physics is showing us about the universe and our place in it, it psycho-energetically “changes,” expands and refreshes our mind. Becoming “quantum-physicized,” we learn to think directly and naturally in quantum mechanical language and logic. Quantum physics is riddled with paradox to its core. Thinking “quantum-logically,” we are able to hold paradox in a new way; instead of needing one or the other viewpoint to be true, in a higher form of logic, we can hold seemingly contradictory statements together as both being true simultaneously. This gives new insight into how what may appear to be contradictions at one level can be part of a deeper consistency and completeness from a higher, more inclusive level.
Wheeler stressed that as we develop more of a capacity to consciously hold paradox, new insights will often emerge. Each new generation will take into itself, learn and integrate quantum physics’ worldview more easily, as each person’s initiation into this new way of thinking and seeing the world nonlocally affects the whole, transforming the collective unconscious of humanity itself. Once we catch up with and integrate what science has discovered about our place in the universe, quantum physics will become the lens through which we view our experience, as its simplicity and obviousness will seem utterly natural. We will wonder how we could have been so blind for so long. Or so I imagine….