Quantum theory is the most far-ranging and successful attempt to understand the physical world ever devised by human beings.
By the late Twenties quantum theorists had solved in elaborate detail the most pressing physics problem of that era–how light interacts with atoms. But along with its astonishing power to predict the most subtle light-matter effects, this fledgling theory created a host of philosophical problems, not the least of which was the bizarre notion that the world is in some sense “not real” except during an act of measurement.
Many physicists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and French scientist-aristocrat Prince Louis De Broglie, felt that giving up reality was too high a price to pay for a mere theory no matter how successful; these physicists hoped in their hearts that quantum theory’s triumphant reign would be short-lived, that this preposterous reality-denying theory would fail when applied outside the atom-sized realm where it had achieved its initial success. The new theory however continued to prosper beyond its inventors’ wildest dreams, resolving even more complicated problems of atomic structure, conquering the complexity of the atomic nucleus, some ten thousand times smaller than the already minuscule atom, then extending its range deeper into matter, down into the subnuclear realm of the elementary particles–quarks, gluons and leptons–which many physicists believe to be the world’s ultimate constituents.
Each new predicative success made quantum physicists bolder. With this apparently invincible theory in hand, quantum theorists searched for new worlds to conquer, and turned their sights to the macrocosm where they convincingly described the quantum chemistry of the primordial fireball, and now even dare to model the birth of the Universe itself as one gigantic quantum leap: from Nothing into Everything.
Exposed for almost 80 years to potential falsification on a thousand different fronts, quantum theory has passed every test that three generations of Nobel-hungry scientists can devise. On all levels accessible to experiment, quantum theory generates flawless predictions for every single one of matter’s quirky operations. Faced with success after success the majority of physicists quietly decided that to give up reality in exchange for quantum theory’s immense predictive power was not such a bad deal after all.
In addition to its repudiation of reality, quantum theory’s whirlwind success has propelled its frontiers for the most part outside the range of ordinary human affairs. Having solved–in principle at least–all physics problems on the ordinary scale, quantum physicists have been forced to seek fresh unexplained phenomena either in the deep microscopic realm of the elementary particles, or in subtle cosmological puzzles remote in time and space from our daily concerns. As the domain of fundamental physics research retreats from the scale of everyday life, increasingly costly apparatus is required to subject these distant realms to experimental scrutiny. Because of the great expense of these experiments, their technical complexity, and their remoteness from our daily lives, direct participation in quantum research is restricted to a few fortunate scientists–through whose efforts the rest of us vicariously share in one of the twentieth-century’s greatest intellectual adventures: the exploration of the strange non-human landscape of the quantum world, the struggle to comprehend the utterly alien logic of what the late Heinz Pagels called “the cosmic code”: quantum physics as the language of nature.
Will the bizarre quantum world forever exist as the private preserve of mathematicians and experimental physicists, or might ordinary people someday gain access to its fabled realms? Recent research into quantum theory’s philosophical dimensions suggests that fundamental quantum research may someday return to a human scale and allow every human being, no matter what their academic credentials, to take part in the quantum adventure, joining with physicists and mathematicians in an egalitarian adventure I call holistic physics. Holistic physics could open up a third front of quantum research on the scale of ordinary experience with inexpensive equipment, which would complement conventional quantum research on the cosmological and elementary particle scales, a third front made possible by the very reality problem that so distressed Einstein and other early quantum physicists.
The quantum reality problem arises primarily because quantum theory describes the world in two ways, not one. Quantum theory represents an object differently depending on whether it is being observed or not being observed. Every physicist without exception uses this twofold quantum description in his or her own work, but physicists hold many divergent opinions about “what is actually going on” during these two stages in an object’s existence: being observed and not-being-observed.
Whenever an object–bulldog, baseball, or baryon–is not under observation, quantum physicists represent that object as a “wave of probability”, called the object’s “wave function”. Instead of definite values for attributes such as position, velocity and spin, each of the object’s attributes takes on–in the mathematics at least–a wide range of possible values, values that oscillate in a wavelike manner at a variety of different frequencies. This way of treating unobserved objects is one of quantum theory’s most peculiar features. Physicists treat an unobserved object not as a real thing but as a probability wave, not as an actual happening but only as a bundle of vibratory possibilities.
On the other hand, when an object is observed, it always manifests at one particular place, with one particular spin and velocity, instead of a smeared-out range of physical properties. During the act of measurement, the mathematical description abruptly shifts–from a spread-out range of possible attributes (unmeasured object) to single-valued actual attributes (measured object). This sudden measurement-induced switch of descriptions is called “the collapse of the wave function”, or simply “the quantum jump”. What actually happens during a quantum jump is the biggest mystery in quantum physics. Whether this drastic shift in the mathematical description corresponds to an actual dislocation in the real world or is a purely mathematical quirk continues to be a matter of deep controversy in the physics community.
Not every physical action counts as a measurement. For instance, the action of gravity on an object alters the structure of its probability wave in a calculable manner but gravity does not in itself induce a quantum jump. Many physicists believe that the essence of a measurement act is “making a record”, a notion I will adopt here. No record, no measurement. Only those interactions in nature that leave behind permanent traces (records) count as measurements. For instance, the flash of light in your eye, recorded as a pattern of neural impulses is one such measurement, while the (unregarded) fall of a sparrow is not. (When the sparrow hits the ground, however, and leaves a mark in the grass one might argue that a measurement has occurred). Only record-making devices have the power to turn multi-valued possibilities into single-valued actualities. If we take quantum theory seriously, the world does not exist as an actuality except under the influence of special recording devices; when unrecorded it exists only as hordes of intermingling semi-real possibilities. Since only a tiny part of the world is lucky enough to be in contact with a measuring device, most of the world, most of the time is “not real”, at least in its mathematical representation.
Some physicists, disturbed by quantum theory’s antirealist stance, preferred to go on believing that unobserved objects remain real, that is possessing definite attributes at all times whether these attributes are looked at or not. In this view, which I call “ordinary realism”, the fuzziness in the quantum description arises not from an objective fuzziness in the attributes of quantum objects, but from the physicist’s own ignorance concerning the values of unobserved attributes. Likewise the quantum jump is not a real physical event but a mere bookkeeping procedure that corresponds to the sudden increase in the observer’s knowledge that occurs in the act of measurement. The gist of ordinary realism, in the words of British physicist Paul Davies is that “big things are made of little things” where “thing” means here an object that possesses definite attributes whether observed or not.
As attractive as this common-sense position might seem, the majority of physicists soundly reject it, holding that quantum phenomena must be taken on their own terms and not forced into outmoded philosophical molds such as ordinary realism. Quantum founding father and firm asntirealist Werner Heisenberg declared, An atom is not a thing,” and compared reality-nostalgic physicists such as Einstein, Schrödinger and Prince De Broglie to believers in the Flat Earth. “The hope that new experiments will lead somehow to an objective world in time and space is as about as well founded,” said Heisenberg,” as the hope of discovering the edge of the earth in some unexplored region of the Antarctic.”
In place of ordinary realism Heisenberg proposed a new picture of quantum reality–a model of what quantum objects are really doing when not being looked at–that is based on taking quantum theory seriously, not as a mere computational tool but as an actaul picture of existence at the quantum level.
To construct his vision of quantum reality, Heisenberg took quantum theory’s vibratory possibilities literally: the attributes of unobserved objects exist, according to Heisenberg, exactly as represented in the theory–as possibilities, not actualities. The unobserrved atom does not really have a definite position, for instance, but only a tendency, an inclination, to be in several possible positions all at the same time. The unwatched atom in the Heisenberg picture, is not actually anywhere, but is potentially everywhere. In Heisenberg’s view an atom is certainly real, but its attributes dwell in an existential limbo “halfway between an idea and a fact”, a quivering state of attenuated existence that Heisenberg called “potentia”, a world devoid of single-valued actuality but teeming with billions upon billions of unrealized possibilities.
Since quantum theory technically applies to everything, not just to atoms, all objects without exception must exist in this partially unreal state of “objective indefiniteness” (Abner Shimony) until someone (or something) decides to look at them. In the act of observation–called by physicists the “act of measurement”–one of the object’s vibratory possibilities is promoted to a condition of full actuality, and all other possibilities vanish without a trace. Which possibility is singled out to become real during a measurement is apparently a matter of “pure chance”, that is, its causes (if any) lie completely outside the world of physical law.
Heisenberg’s strange picture of the quantum world as half-real possibilities that become actualized only during a measurement act is considered by many physicists as a most reasonable guess as to how the world deep down really operates. Certainly many more physicists subscribe to the Heisenberg picture than to the common-sense tenets of ordinary realism. To the average physicist the notion that the ordinary world spends most of its time in an unreal state is not considered preposterous. Since quantum theory describes so correctly the world we see , they argue, it would be foolish not to take seriously what it seems to be also telling us about the unseen world.
Because no measurement can ever tell us what the unmeasured world is like, Heisenberg’s pictue of quantum reality would seem to be impossible to verify or refute. Some philosophers have argued, that because of their intrinsic unverifiability, models of reality of the Heisenberg variety can be of no possible interest to scientists: they urge us to turn our interests elsewhere, to theories and models that have consequences in the world that we can see and touch. However, one important function that a model of the unseen reality can perform is to help us in extending our thinking into unknowon realms. For this purpose even a bad map might lead to new discoveries.
I would like to use Heisenberg’s model of quantum reality in just this way, to attempt to extend quantum ideas into a brand-new realm. To expand ordinary physics into “holistic physics”, the democratic science of the future, I propose to conjoin Heisenberg’s picture of “the way the world really works” with a particular conjecture concerning the relation of mind to matter.’
While modern science has largely mastered the world of matter, the world of mind still remains a deep mystery, an intellectual black hole opaque to systematic comprehension. It is fair to say that as far as scientific understanding of the mind goes we are almost totally at sea. By the high standards of explanation we have come to demand in physics and other sciences, we do not even possess a bad theory of consciousness, let alone a good one.
Speculations concerning the origin of inner experience in humans and other beings have been few vague and superficial. They include the notion that mind is an “emergent property” of active neuronal nets, or that mind is the “software” that manages the brain’s unconscious “hardware”. To these rather soft specualtions I would like to add my own–that mind is not a rare phenomenon associated with certain complex biological systems but is everywhere, universal in nature, a fundamental quantum effect more akin to superconductors and laser tubes than to computer circuitry.
As the cornerstone of holistic physics, I assume that every quantum system has both an “inside” and an “outside”, and that consciousness in humans as well as in other sentient beings is identical to the inner experience of some quantum system. A quantum system’s outside behavior is described by quantum theory, its inside experience is the subject matter of a new “inner physics” yet to be developed. The size of the quantum system in the brain responsible for our familiar human form of consciousness can be estimated from subjective measurements of conscious data rate–how much information can you simultaneously pay attention to? The physical location of the human consciousness system may be inferred from the action sites of so-called psychedelic (mind-manifesting) drugs–molecules that alter the basic structure of consciousness itself rather than merely meddling with its contents.
The notion that consciousness is intimately connected with quantum teory is not new. In 1924, Alfred Lotka, one of the founders of modern theoretical biology, guessed that the then-new physics of the quantum might someday account for the phenomenon of human awareness. Recently neurobiologist Sir John Eccles proposed that a non-material mind gains control over the matter of the human brain via quantum-mechanical acts on certain intrinsically inefficient neural synapses. World-class mathematician John von Neuman and Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner claim that quantum theory is actually formally incomplete–and that the least drastic way to make quantum theory mathematically consistent is to introduce consciousness as the necessary accomplice of every quantum jump. Despite its support by certain prominent physicists and biologists, no serious experimental program has yet been conceived, let alone carried out, to test the quantum consciousness hypothesis.
Many primitive peoples organized their lives around a doctrine we call “animism”, the belief that every object possesses sentient “insides” like our own. The quantum consciousness assumption, which amounts to a kind of “quantum animism” likewise asserts that consciousness is an integral part of the physical world, not an emergent property of special biological or computational systems. Since everything in the world is on some level a quantum system, this assumption requires that everything be conscious on that level. If the world is truly quantum animated, then there is an immense amount of invisible inner experience going on all around us that is presently inaccessible to humans, because our own inner lives are imprisoned inside a small quantum system, isolated deep in the meat of an animal brain. We may not need to travel into outer space to inhabit entirely new worlds. New experiential worlds of inconceivable richness and variety may already be present “at our fingertips”–worlds made up of strangely intelligent minds that silently surround and interpenetrate our own modes of awareness.
Half-baked attempts to explain consciousness, such as mind-as-software or mind-as-emergent-property do not take themselves seriously enough to confront the experimental facts, our most intimate data base, namely how mind itself feels from the inside. On the other hand, the most suggestive evidence for a quantum model of mind is that the Heisenberg picture of how quantum events actually happen in the world is extremely congruent with our own internal experience of what it’s like to be a sentient being. Looking inside, I do not feel like “software” whatever that might mean, but indeed like a shimmering (wavelike?) center of ambiguous potentia (possibilities?) around which more solid perceptions and ideas are continually congealing (quantum jumps?). This rough match of internal feeling with external description could be utterly deceptive but it at least shows that the quantum model of mind can successfully confront the introspective evidence in a way that no other mind models even attempt.
Because of the two-fold character of the quantum description, this quantum model of mind predicts two basic types of subjective experience: a clear, determinate, computer-data type of experience (type-one consciousness) built out of quantum jumps; and a fuzzy, indeterminate, ambiguous experience (type-two consciousness), an insider’s view of some of the brain’s vibratory possibilities. The vibratory nature of these conscious possibilities is not usually experienced by humans for the same reason that the wavelike nature of sunlight eluded observation for so long–light from the sun consists of wavelengths too short to perceive under ordinary conditions. In the quantum animism model, the quantum jump–Heisenberg’s objective transition from half-real potentia to solid actuality–corresponds to a conscious decision in the human mind, or in the mind of some non-human sentient being, to promote part of its ambiguous type-two experience to more unequivocal type-one status.
This quantum model of mind offers a new perspective on conscious experience which could lead to a new “quantum psychology” linking our internal experiences in a testable way to the objective external behavior of certain (so far unidentified) brain-resident quantum systems. The problems of human perception, emotion and personality as well as the mysterious extra-physical origin of quantum jumps may well yield to a disciplined marriage of keen introspection and quantum biology. Moving beyond quantum psychology, the realization that behind every visible quantum process lies an invisible psychic extension will result in a new kind of physics–I call it “quantum tantra”– in which human awareness becomes an essential component of every experiment.
“If questions of a different kind can be asked, then nature will respond in a new language.”–Beverly Rubik, biophysicist
At the heart of quantum tantra will be a new kind of measurement that I call “rapprochement” to distinguish it from the act of measurement in conventional physics. While an ordinary measurement informs us about a thing’s outsides, rapprochement connects the observer to an object’s heretofore hidden insides, allowing him or her to directly experience the inner lives of quantum systems.
As conventional measurement cannot penetrate to the inside of an object to examine its quantum potentia because every conventional measurement, no matter how delicate, inevitably triggers a quantum jump that erases all potentia save one. This new kind of measurement–rapprochement–on the other hand, connects the mind of the observer directly to the object’s potentia without the intervention of a quantum jump. The full content of the object’s inner life is adjoined to the inner life of the observer and their intermingled potentias mutually enrich each other, without memorializing or prejudicing one potentia over another.
To achieve rapprochement one needs a way of connecting the mind of the observer to the “mind” of the object without making records; one needs a so-called “oblivious link” which physically couples the brain’s consciousness to the object in question without initiating a quantum jump. Since the inner lives of physical objects are almost certainly incomprehensible in human terms, the first truly usable oblivious links will no doubt be established between two human quantum centers of consciousness, not between a human consciousness and the insides of some “inanimate” system. Quantum-intimate brain-matter links with non-human beings will come later, after we have practiced such linkage with humans.
Since magnetic fields can easily penetrate the brain and do not collapse wave functions, one possible candidate for an oblivious link between two brain centers might be a slowly varying magnetic field. Two humans with their heads immersed in the same oscillating magnetic field may be the first people to actually experience the pleasures of rapprochement, a new kind of quantum-mediated telepathy.
However, the “telepathy” achieved during rapprochement will feel very different from a mere exchange of data. The joining of two centers of Heisenbergian potentia via an oblivious link does not make any records. This new experience of insides-to-insides “essence merge” is a moment-to-moment impression that is immediately forgotten. Indeed the experience of multivalued potentia (type-two consciousness) is of a kind that by its very nature must be forgotten, since only single-valued experiences (type-one consciousness, or quantum jumps) can be recorded in the brain or anywhere else in the world. One task of the quantum psychologist will be to determine the relative proportion of type-one and type-two consciousnesses–the proportion, loosely speaking, of “fact” and “fantasy”–in the minds of various personality types. Although the experience of rapprochement is soon forgotten, it is not without permanent effect of the participants. The quantum potentias–and hence the scope of all their future possibilities–of both partners in the quantum linkup are drastically altered by their intimate essence exchange.
Whether quantum tantra is the mind/body science of the future or a philosophical shaggy-dog story depends on whether the human mind really is the private insides of some quantum brain system (unknown) and on our ingenuity (untested) in constructing oblivious links that jumplessly join brain centers to outside matter systems.
German light/matter physicist Walter Heitler and others have claimed that quantum theory requires that the separation of the world into an objective outside reality and a self-conscious inner observer can no longer be maintained. “Subject and object have become inseparable from each other, ” says Heitler. Yet I have practiced experimental quantum physics for more than twenty years without once merging with my apparatus. Although quantum object and quantum measuring device do indeed merge in the early stages of measurement, that holistic merger is always cut short by the wave function collapse, by the production of a single-valued record inside the measuring device. A physicist never experiences fundamental union with the outside world in a conventional quantum measurement because the quantum jump always intervenes at the last minute to cleanly isolate the observer from the thing observed.
Unlike conventional physics, quantum tantra really would erase the distinction between subject and object. They became what they beheld in the quantum tantra lab. There will be a very real danger in the obliviation operation of getting “lost in space” and never coming back. That is probably what will ultimately happen to our species. Scientists, generally wary of all-engulfing non-intellectual experiences, will probably hold back. But once they discover the peculiar exhilaration of rapprochement, ordinary men and women will not hesitate to diffuse their beings into matter itself, contacting, exploring, and adopting mindforms progressively more bizarre, awaking out of ordinary consciousness as from a long dream, and filling all of space-time with the tang of a new style of awareness that once called itself human.
© 2002 Nick Herbert
Nick Herbert is an industrial and academic physicist and is the author of “Quantum Reality”, “Faster Than Light” and “Elemental Mind”. He is currently devising the Next Big Science which he calls Quantum Tantra and is said to be a contender for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. See