A unique development in human history, the discovery of the quantum nature of our universe is a seismic, tectonic shift in the very foundation of physics and the roots of our scientific worldview, a change so momentous that it can literally transform the course of human history. This great change is already underway and yet there remains a long way to go for the full transformational impact of the discoveries of quantum physics to be assimilated by humanity. What quantum physics is revealing to us is so radical, with implications so far reaching, that to call it merely revolutionary would not do it justice. The conceptual revolution of quantum theory has literally turned physics on its head; what it is revealing about our universe is turning right side up what had been inverted and upside down.
Quantum physics is introducing us to a radical new way of seeing and understanding which profoundly impacts human thinking, feeling, sensing, knowing and being. As if the universe itself is giving us a cosmic physics lesson, what quantum physics is revealing to us requires a completely new way of thinking about the universe, our place in it as well as ourselves. Quantum theory is teaching us that implicit in our very thinking are certain flaws and misperceptions that, unseen and taken for granted, unnecessarily limit our ability to apprehend the nature of nature, including our own. The founders of quantum physics, people such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger famously argued that quantum physics is first and foremost a new way of thinking. Indeed, the most far-reaching impact of quantum physics will be within the human mind.
The discoveries of quantum physics are truly a game-changer that requires a novel response in us which, when more fully understood and integrated, will irrevocably change us─both on the individual level and as a species─in the very core of our being. Regarding the implications of quantum physics, John Bell, one of the most important physicists of the latter half of the twentieth century, is of the opinion that “the new way of seeing things will involve an imaginative leap that will astonish us.” It is hard to imagine something truly astonishing that we wouldn’t tend to initially rule out as preposterous. This new way of seeing things, this imaginative leap is truly an evolutionary upleveling─a real quantum jump in consciousness─that quantum physics is inviting each of us to partake in.
Quantum physics is the most subversive of all the sciences, having created a “reality crisis” in the field of physics such that the very idea of “reality” itself has been undermined, relegated to being a questionable, ambiguous and twilight concept. The very “reality” that pre-quantum physics had been studying has been demonstrated by quantum physics to not even exist! The greatest experts of quantum physics, if it’s even possible to speak of “experts” in a field that, according to Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “no one understands,” literally do not know “what” they are talking about.[ii] Physicists who study their own theory have, in their attempts at grasping its implications, lost their grip on reality, finding nothing, absolutely nothing to hold onto. Quantum physics has pulled the rug out from under us only to reveal no floor below, no place on which to take a stand, as the notion of a seemingly solid, objectively existing world evaporates like dewdrops in the morning sunlight.
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.
The discoveries of quantum physics, practically speaking, have given us the capacity to both increase the quality of our lives and/or to potentially ravage the environment on an unprecedented scale, even to obliterate our species altogether. 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.”[iii] 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. The precise accuracy of its mathematical formalism and methodology is beyond debate; none of its predictions have ever been shown to be wrong. It is literally the most successful scientific theory of all time. 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 never in all of my life come across a field where all of the supposed “experts” disagree with each other about the meaning of their own theory. This is the deep philosophical question that begs to be answered─what does quantum physics mean? When the alleged experts can’t agree, we can feel free to choose our preferred expert─or explore and speculate on our own.
I am certainly not a physicist; rather, I am someone who, the more I contemplate the deeper philosophical underpinnings of quantum physics, can’t help but wonder what nature itself is revealing to us through her new physics. As such, I am writing as an “outsider” regarding the field of physics. I have absolutely no authority to comment on the nuts and bolts physics of things, which I literally know nothing about. On the contrary, I am simply giving voice from my perspective as a curious person who is trying to make sense of what it means when physics tells us that the world we live in is quantum through and through. As a citizen in the recently recognized quantum world, I am writing as an “innocent bystander,” except that quantum physics unavoidably implicates me as participating in what I’m writing 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.
Renowned theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler, a colleague of both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, is considered to be one of the towering intellects and greatest physicists of the twentieth century. A professor emeritus at Princeton, Wheeler has been called a “sage of modern physics,” as well as, after Einstein and Bohr, “the last of the greats.” Drawn to explore the very limits of science, Wheeler was unafraid to face the big issues of his field. His list of accomplishments in physics is staggering; the whole universe─both big and small─was the playground for his poetic imagination. Wheeler was a pied piper among physicists; due to his fondness for speculating on what directions future science might take, he was considered to be the Delphic oracle of physics. 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. Typically gracious to a fault, he was considered a “gentleman’s gentleman.” Wheeler was a rigorous, hard-core scientist as well as a visionary whose musings went far beyond the orthodox, often astounding the narrow specialist. A speculative dreamer with the soul of a surrealist poet, he has been described as someone who “dreams with open eyes,” and “a twentieth century Leonardo da Vinci.” 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.”[iv] 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 is a meaningless statement; it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about an objective universe as if it exists separate from our observation of it. 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 has opened up the door to a profoundly new vision of the cosmos, where the observer, the observed and the act of observation are inseparably united.[v]
Quantum physics has shown that the idea of safely standing behind a slab of plate glass while passively observing the universe is impossible, as our observation of even something as miniscule as an electron necessitates the shattering of the glass and reaching into, so to speak, the electron’s subatomic world, which changes both the electron and ourselves. It is impossible to gain information without changing the state of the system being measured, as we invariably bring about a different world by the very act of trying to determine the state of the world. 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.’”[vi]
In essence, consciousness has entered into the physics laboratory, and physicists are not quite sure what to make of this turn of events. Who can blame them? The encountering of consciousness in their experiments─what has been called physics’ “skeleton in the closet”─is, simply put, out of their league. Coming to terms and facing up to consciousness’s intrusion into their hallowed halls is forcing physics to come to terms with questions of meta-physics, which for most physicists is not what they signed up for. Quantum physics is itself the greatest threat to the underlying metaphysical assumptions of “scientific materialism,” a perspective which assumes that there is an independently existing, objective material world that is separate from the observer.
It can easily seem as if the whole consciousness problem has been forced upon physics against its will by some outside agency. But nothing could be further from the truth─the appearance of consciousness 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.”[vii] Most physicists think that something as ethereal as consciousness─what has been referred to as “the unwanted stepchild of physics”─has no place in “real” physics. 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.
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. Ironically, from the scientific point of view, it is irrational and against the very spirit of science to cling to such a false and obsolete idea of the world we live in. 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.”[viii] 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.
Not just the physics community, but the vast majority of our species is suffering from a similar “holding on” to what Stapp refers to as “a known-to-be-false” idea of the world if we think it inherently exists separate from ourselves. 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?”[ix] 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.
It is as if physicists themselves haven’t fully comprehended and don’t quite know what to make of the great truth that they have unwittingly stumbled upon. They have been forced to wrestle, not just intellectually but emotionally, existentially and spiritually with their own discoveries in the quantum realm. 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?”[x] 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 deep 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. Human beings are not likely to thrive or endure in a society ruled by a conception of ourselves that denies the very creative essence of our being. Our understanding of the world we live in determines the ethics we live by; living a life based on a worldview that is an illusion can easily lead to living the wrong life. 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.
“Objective reality” is an unexamined implicit assumption, merely an idea in our mind. 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. Upsetting the applecart of consensus reality, quantum physics points out that objective reality does not actually exist. Becoming a phenomenologist for a moment, instead of referring to the world “out there,” 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.
The notion of an independent, objective reality that exists separate from an observer is a very deep-seated assumption, a habit of mind, which like one of Kant’s categories of perception, resides at a core level of the human psyche. This assumed viewpoint practically becomes hard-wired into the brain, causing us to filter our perceptions so as to reflect back our core assumptions. Regardless of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there still exists an underlying unconscious mode of language and type of thinking embedded in physics which conceives of the world as having a type of objective existence that it simply doesn’t have. Albert Einstein was deeply disturbed by quantum physics’ implication that there is no independently existing objective universe, and was not able to let go of his strong belief that there exists an external, objective world independent of the perceiving subject. To quote Einstein, “The belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.” 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.”[xi] We should question what it is in the way we think about the world that causes quantum behavior to be so troubling. Our being troubled is a result of the disparity between the way reality operates and actually manifests itself and our ideas of what reality should be. Wheeler confesses that he is not troubled “at all” by what quantum theory is revealing; on the contrary, he feels that it is “a perfectly marvelous feature of nature,” and that “it is just the way the world works.”
Thinking that there’s an objective reality is a residue of the old materialistic perspective that lingers as an ingrained way of viewing reality, as if many physicists─and the majority of our species─are suffering from an “objective-reality hangover.” One of the things that distinguishes Wheeler from many other physicists is his refusal to try to save pre-quantum viewpoints, particularly, to quote physicist Anton Zeilinger, “the obviously wrong notion of a reality independent of us.” 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 (please see my article “As Viewed, So Appears”). Nature seems to respond in accordance with the theory and beliefs by which it is approached. The choices we make about what we observe make a difference in what we find. Wheeler wants to replace the idea of an objectively existing world, or as he puts it, a “hardware located out there,” with a “meaning software” located who knows where.
To quote Einstein, “Reality [which elsewhere he says ‘is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one’] is the real business of physics.” 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.”[xii] 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.”[xiii] 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.”[xiv] 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.”[xv]
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[xvi] (“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[xvii] 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. This mechanistic, deterministic and reductionist attitude unfortunately became identified with science itself, thus introducing a number of tacit taboos and limiting assumptions into the otherwise open-ended process of exploration known as the scientific method. 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. Increasingly enthralled by science’s ever-growing achievements and technological wizardry, few have questioned whether these very advances might at the same time be leading humanity astray from essential aspects of the true nature of our being, slowly dehumanizing our species in the process.
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.”[xviii] 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. In Wheeler’s opinion, “the most revolutionary discovery in science is yet to come! And come, not by questioning the quantum, but by uncovering that utterly simple idea that demands the quantum.”[xix] According to Wheeler, the universe could not even have come into being without the quantum. It is Wheeler’s opinion that until we arrive at this basic idea underlying the quantum, we have not understood the essence of the quantum principle. What is this “utterly simple idea” that Wheeler is positing that demands a quantum world? Could it have to do with the dreamlike nature of reality, a perspective which embraces the role of consciousness in creating our world? Wheeler says, “There are some ideas out there that are waiting to be discovered.” It is as if some ideas are “in the air,” pervading the underlying field of the collective unconscious, just waiting to be tuned into and “received.” Etymologically, the word “idea” has to do with a way of seeing, a perspective through which we view the world. Wheeler writes, “Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, ‘Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we all have been so blind so long?’”[xx]
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. Are the insights of quantum physics providing the clue that will lead us to a previously undreamed of treasure just waiting to be discovered? Wheeler comments, “Except it be that observership brings the universe into being what other way is there to understand that clue?”[xxi] 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.”
If we view the physics community as an individual and view quantum physics as their dream, it is as if physicists have “dreamed up” quantum theory in all its glory as a compensation for all of our intellectual one-sidedness, as a way of showing us our blind-spot, reflecting back to us our unfounded unconscious assumptions. As crazy as it might sound, quantum physics, with all of its seeming absurdity, is revealing a deeper order of nature that transcends the one-sidedness of the predominant scientific worldview and is thereby medicine for the overly materialistic madness we’ve succumbed to. 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.
THE LAWS OF PHYSICS
Physics has always thought of itself as being 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.”[xxii] 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? Wheeler writes, “The more one learns about the laws of physics, the more one learns how little one has learned.”[xxiii] 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.”[xxiv] 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.”[xxv] 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.”[xxvi] 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?”[xxvii]
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[xxviii] 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?”[xxix] 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 universe gives rise to meaning-establishing observer-participants, who, in developing the ideas of quantum mechanics, grant a meaningful existence to the universe. 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 idea of observer-participancy implies that the universe has built into it from the very beginning the potentiality for giving birth to and housing observers. Without observers there is no existence; in Wheeler’s words, “there would be nothing rather than something.” 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.[xxx] Wheeler says, “We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening.”[xxxi] 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.”[xxxii]
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,[xxxiii] 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….
Wheeler’s vision of the universe is like a “self-excited circuit,” to use a metaphor from electronics. To say the universe is “self”-excited is to say it is not “other”-excited, which is to say that rather than depending upon an external agent, god or deity, the universe is self-creating and self-referential─i.e., able to refer to, reflect and act upon itself, and hence, endlessly re-create itself anew.[xxxiv] Seen as a self-excited and self-actualizing circuit, the physical universe bootstraps itself into existence, laws and all. As a self-excited circuit, the universe gives rise to observers who, in completing the circuit, potentially give meaningful reality to the universe. Wheeler says, “The universe is to be compared to a circuit self-excited in this sense, that the universe gives birth to consciousness, and consciousness gives meaning to the universe.” The emergence of consciousness in the universe is as epic and epochal an event in cosmic history as the first big blast of its materialization in the supposed big bang. The self-excitation is caused by the innate fundamental tendency for self-perception built into the very ground of being. In this process of self-cognition, the universe is able to turn back upon itself so as to explore its nature via its various life forms as it endlessly creates and recreates itself through innumerable acts of observer-participation. The universe generates an interactive feedback loop of cosmic intelligence within itself that becomes the internal guidance system and source of its own continually unfolding genesis. Contrary to the mechanistic worldview of classical physics, the universe as a self-excited circuit implies a participatory universe that endlessly creates itself through innumerable acts of participatory self-perception. To quote Wheeler, “Directly opposite to the concept of universe as machine built on law is the vision of a world self-synthesized. On this view, the notes struck out on a piano by the observer participants of all times and all places, bits though they are in and by themselves, constitute the great wide world of space and time and things.”[xxxv]
In such a self-referential cosmology whose nature is a self-generating feedback loop of pure creativity, we are dreaming up the universe, while at the same time the universe is reciprocally dreaming us up, as the seemingly subjective and objective realities interblend and co-create each other. Un-countable small acts of observer-participancy have over eons built up the tangible appearance of the material world. Self-excitatory, to quote Wheeler, “the universe is a grand synthesis, putting itself together all the time as a whole. Its history is not a history as we usually conceive history. It is not one thing happening after another after another. It is a totality in which what happens ‘now’ gives reality to what happens ‘then,’ perhaps even determines what happened then.”[xxxvi]
Talking about one of the most startling features of a thought experiment that he dreamed up called the “delayed choice experiment” (which has since been empirically verified), the act of observation, to quote Wheeler, “reaches back into the past in apparent opposition to the normal order of time.” In his thought experiment, which is a creative use of the imagination to tease out a little more information from nature, Wheeler discovered that “a choice made in the here-and-now has irretrievable consequences for what one has the right to say about what has already happened in the very earliest days of the universe, long before there was any life on Earth.”[xxxvii] This is to say that acts of observer-participancy in this moment give tangible “reality” to the universe not only now but back to its beginning. This is not far-out science fiction, but hard-core science that is actually stranger than fiction. Wheeler elaborates, “It is wrong to think of that past as ‘already existing’ in all detail. The ‘past’ is theory. The past has no existence except as it is recorded in the present. By deciding what questions our quantum registering equipment shall put in the present we have an undeniable choice in what we have the right to say about the past.”[xxxviii] Classical physics describes the present as having a particular past; quantum physics, on the other hand, because of its probabilistic nature enlarges the arena of human history such that the past is an amalgam of all possible pasts compatible with the version of the present moment we are currently experiencing. The quantum universe is polyhistoric; the past involves a wide range of possible pasts all co-existing in a state of unmanifested potential. The act of observation collapses what is called the wavefunction (a mathematical construct that describes all of the system’s possible states) in such a way so as to evoke a particular universe in the present moment while simultaneously reaching backwards in time to create a history appropriate with our present moment experience. There is no way to say unambiguously what the past was really like until we know its future; as in a work of art, each part of the universe acquires its full meaning only in its relation to the whole. To quote physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, co-authors of The Grand Design, “Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities…. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history…. The fact that the past takes no definite form means that observations you make on a system in the present affect its past.”[xxxix] In any case, in quantum physics it certainly seems “as if” an observation made in the present moment reaches back and influences the past. Through our observations in this moment, Wheeler writes, “we decide what the photon shall have done after it has already done it.”[xl] The connection between the observer and the observed not only cannot be separated in space, but has no distinction in time as well. This perspective turns our conception of linear time and causality on its head. To quote author Graham Smetham, “The entire universe appears to be a kind of collective delayed choice experiment in which inhabiting sentient beings somehow determine the manifested nature of the universe even backwards in time!”[xli] This introduces a self-referential circularity in which the laws of quantum physics can allow for their own self-modification backwards in time. The implication is that as observers we are participants in the genesis of the universe, a process that Wheeler calls “genesis by observership.” The moment of the world’s creation lies in the present, in the eternal now, with us somehow playing a “starring” role.
[i] For the purpose of this article, the terms quantum physics, quantum theory and quantum mechanics are interchangeable.
[ii] This is reminiscent of the alchemists, who in writing about Mercurius, the lapis, the philosopher’s stone (all different ways of describing their “God-image”), in Jung’s words “did not know what they were writing about.”
[iii] Stapp, Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, p. 4.
[iv] Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, p. 58
[v] To quote Walter Heitler, author of a standard textbook on the light/matter interaction, “The separation of the world into an ‘objective outside reality’ and ‘us,’ the self-conscious onlookers, can no longer be maintained. Object and subject have become inseparable from each other.”
[vi] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 126.
[vii] Wheeler and Zurek, ed., Quantum Theory and Measurement, p. 169.
[viii] Peat, Infinite Potential: The Life and Times of David Bohm.
[ix] Sarfatti, “Wheeler’s World: It from Bit?” – Internet Science Education Project, San Francisco, CA.
[x] Wheeler and Zurek, ed., Quantum Theory and Measurement, p. xvi.
[xi] Bohr, “Can quantum mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete?” Physical Review 48 (1935), pp. 696-702.
[xii] Pauli, Letter from Pauli to Fierz 12 August 1948, quoted by K. V. Laurikainen, Wolfgang Pauli and Philosophy, Theoretical Physics Preprint HU-TFT 83-6, University of Helsinki.
[xiii] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 126.
[xiv] Wheeler and Zurek, ed., Quantum Theory and Measurement, p. 210.
[xv] Bernstein, Quantum Profiles, p. 138.
[xvi] Although Newton himself had a worldview that was far more spiritually oriented than the “Newtonian” worldview that is now attributed to him.
[xvii] We are currently in the midst of a massive collective psychosis which the Native American people refer as “wetiko.” My book Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil is an in-depth inquiry into this psychic epidemic, a psycho-spiritual disease of the soul.
[xviii] Barrow, Davies and Harper, ed., Science and Ultimate Reality, p. 3.
[xix] Zurek, van der Merwe and Miller, ed., Between Quantum and Cosmos, p. 12.
[xx] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 310.
[xxi] Ibid., p. 45.
[xxii] Buckley and Peat, A Question of Physics, p. 60.
[xxiii] Wheeler, Frontiers of Time, p. 31.
[xxiv] Barrow, Davies and Harper, ed., Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, p. 6.
[xxv] Woolf, ed., Some Strangeness in the Proportion, p. 350.
[xxvi] Wheeler, Frontiers of Time, p. 20.
[xxvii] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 35.
[xxviii] The question naturally arises – what constitutes an observer? This is one of the central and most burning philosophical questions in quantum physics. In addition to humans, what about a cat, or a mouse, a cockroach, an amoeba, a piece of mica? Where does consciousness first enter in the elaborate hierarchy of terrestrial life? Where does the capacity to collapse a wavefunction derive from?─from the presence of consciousness or from some other condition? It’s as if observership and its ability to translate unmanifest possibilities into definite actualities is a pervasive feature which is widely distributed throughout the web of life. From this perspective all life forms are dreaming together, collectively collapsing the universal wavefunction of this universe to manifest the way it is moment by moment.
[xxix] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 26.
[xxx] In my recent book Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil, I point out that our unawareness of our participation in creating our experience is actually at the root of a psycho-spiritual dis-ease (which I call “malignant egophrenia” or “wetiko”), a malady which is causing great destruction, both within ourselves and out in the world at large. What I call “Aparticipatory Delusional Syndrome” (ADS for short) is based on the deluded assumption that we are separate from and not participating in calling forth the very situation in the outside world to which we are reacting. ADS is the primary, underlying psychological “dynamic” or “engine” that fuels the “malignant” aspect of malignant egophrenia/wetiko. The extent to which we feel ourselves the victim of circumstances and don’t realize our complicity in what is playing out in our lives is the extent to which we have fallen prey to ADS. ADS effectively immobilizes and renders inoperative our ability to self-reflect, as it relates to the world through the fixed and non-negotiable lens of assumptions that the world “object”-ively exists, independent of ourselves. When we are stricken with ADS, we react to our perceptions and interpretations as if they exist inherently and independently in the objects of the world, rather than realizing that they are automatic reflexions of the way we are looking and are thus always revealing the subject (ourselves). When we have fallen under the spell of ADS, we always see the cause of our problems as being outside of ourselves. In an unconscious “reflex,” we then try to “attack” the problem from the wrong point of view, externally, instead of approaching its source, which is within ourselves. ADS is a “semantic syndrome” in which we are misinterpreting the nature of our experience, subtly but significantly altering the way our mind gives meaning to and contextualizes our experience of the universe as well as ourselves. A simple example: I am withdrawing from my girlfriend due to my own wound. She senses this, which triggers her insecurities around being rejected. In her reaction, she acts out her wound, which gives me all the seemingly “objective” evidence that I need to further justify my withdrawal. I don’t realize, however, my complicity in invoking the very wound in her to which I am reacting.
[xxxi] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 120.
[xxxii] Rosenblum and Kutner, Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, p. 201.
[xxxiii] Please see the section “Four-valued logic” in my book Dispelling Wetiko, pp. 40-44.
[xxxiv] Note how Wheeler’s description of the universe as a self-excited circuit is similar to what in alchemy is called the “prima materia,” which is the “famous secret” and the basis of the entire alchemical opus. It is the raw material out of which the lapis, the philosophers’ stone (the highest value) is made. The prima materia is called radix ipsius (root of itself). It is an increatum, an uncreated, autonomous, self-generating, spirit-like entity which is rooted in itself, is dependent on nothing, and has everything that it needs. Without beginning or end, and in need of “no second,” it can by definition only be something of a divine nature. The prima materia is related to the God-image of the alchemists, Mercurius, who interestingly enough, begets himself.
[xxxv] Wheeler (1999) “Information, Physics, Quantum: the Search for Links.” In Feynman and Computation: Exploring the Limits of Computers, ed. A. J. G. Hey, p. 309 (314). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.
[xxxvi] Wheeler, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, 338.
[xxxvii] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 114.
[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 126.
[xxxix] Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design, p. 82.
[xl] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 124.