In Part 1 of this article, I point out that John Wheeler, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, felt that quantum physics is revealing that the act of observation was the magical ingredient in the generation of what we call reality. Without an observer it is as if this is a dead universe, one that wouldn’t evolve over time, for without observers, there is no existence. Quantum theory reflects back to us, to again quote Wheeler, “that the universe would be nothing without observership as surely as a motor would be dead without electricity.”[i] In the act of observation, the physical reality of the world becomes actualized, and in a self-generating circular feedback loop that is self-referential in nature, it is the same physical world that generates observers who are responsible for bestowing seemingly tangible reality to its existence. The observer-participant is both a result of an evolutionary process and, in some sense, the cause of its own emergence. Wheeler wonders, “Is observership the ‘electricity’ that powers genesis?”[ii] In other words, mind-boggling as it is to contemplate, are we, as “observer-participants” playing a role in the genesis of the cosmos in this very moment? According to Wheeler, “It is incontrovertible that the observer is participator in genesis… it is difficult to see any other line that lends itself to exploration. What other way of genesis is there?”[iii] Wheeler is reflecting that we play a role in the creation of the universe that has been normally reserved for the “gods.”
I can only imagine what it must have been like for the founders of quantum physics to stumble upon the quantum realm; they must have felt like explorers from a faraway land coming across something completely unknown and mysterious. Wheeler uses the example of someone seeing an automobile for the first time. Conjecturing on what it is like to encounter this mysterious phenomenon, Wheeler writes that thoughts arise such as, “It is obviously meant for use, and an important use, but what use?”[iv] In his example, the automobile is the quantum: One opens the door, cranks the window up and down, flashes the lights on and off, perhaps even turns over the starter, all the while without knowing what it’s really for. Similarly, we use the quantum in a transistor to control machinery, in a molecule to design an anesthetic, in a superconductor to make a magnet. All are great advances that we are using to our advantage, but are we missing the main idea? Wheeler asks, “Could it be that all the time we have been missing the central point, the use of the quantum phenomenon in the construction of the universe itself? We have turned over the starter. We haven’t got the engine going.”[v]
Is, in Wheeler’s words, the “eruption after eruption” into physics of “the quantum”─the “fiery creative force of modern physics”─the doorway into deepening our understanding of the very architecture and engineering of the creation of the universe itself? Wheeler refers to quantum phenomena as untouchable, indivisible “elementary acts of creation”[vi] which reach into the present from billions of years in the past, and he views them as the building material of all that is. He openly wonders, “Are billions upon billions of acts of observer-participancy the foundation of everything?”[vii] In other words, are “billions upon billions of acts of observer-participancy” by innumerable beings over countless eons the very quantum process which has created our world, literally dreaming our world into materialization? Wheeler ponders whether the very term “big bang” is merely a shorthand way to describe the cumulative effects of these billions upon billions of acts of observer-participancy.[viii]
Regarding how the universe came into being, Wheeler asks, “is the mechanism that came into play one which all the time shows itself?”[ix] Is enfolded within our present-moment experience the primordial creative act which reflects the genesis of the entire cosmos? Does the mystery of the world’s on-going creation lie in the present moment, in the eternal now? Wheeler continues, “For a process of creation that can and does operate anywhere, that reveals itself and yet hides itself, what could one have dreamed up out of pure imagination more magic─and fitting─than this?”[x] What more “fitting” physics could we have, in Wheeler’s words, “dreamed up” out of pure imagination to reflect back to us the “magic” of our dreamlike world? A process which itself is an expression of the dreamlike nature, we have “dreamed up” quantum physics to reflect the dreamlike nature of the universe back to us. In trying to understand nature, as if by magic, physics is helping us discover our nature.
We live in a universe that is capable not only of harboring life, but of cultivating life which is intelligent enough to wonder and ask about its origins. In our observing and reflecting upon our universe we are actually changing the universe’s idea of itself. Through us, the universe questions itself and tries out various answers on itself in an effort─parallel to our own─to decipher its own being. Wheeler comments, “and then at last an inspiration: a feeling that we who felt ourselves so small amidst it all are, in the end, the carriers of the central jewel, the flashing purpose that lights up the whole dark universe.”[xi]
STRANGER THAN FICTION
It has been said that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. Wheeler writes in his autobiography, “The strangeness of the quantum world, from which Einstein incessantly sought escape and from which Bohr saw no escape, is real.”[xii] The quantum realm─the world of the really small[xiii]─is composed of objects that are unlike any other objects we have ever imagined. Subatomic objects don’t exist as things, but rather, as events, as happenings, as dynamic ever-changing interactive psycho-physical processes. The aspects of nature represented by quantum theory are converted from elements of “being” to elements of “doing,” which basically replaces the world of material substances with a world populated by actions, events and processes. Not located in time or space but in an abstract realm, the elementary quantum phenomenon, to quote Wheeler, “is the strangest thing in this strange world.” The strangeness of these subatomic entities is highlighted by our inability to even conceive of them separate from our participating in their genesis. As compared with Einstein’s theory of relativity, which the more deeply we think about, the less strange it seems, the more deeply we think about quantum physics, the stranger it seems. The universe’s mind-bending strangeness is part of its charm, however. To quote Wheeler, “We will first understand how simple the universe is when we recognize how strange it is.”[xiv] In science, oftentimes the greatest insights are won from nature’s strangest features. And yet, at a certain point the universe’s, and quantum physics’ strangeness will seem utterly natural, or so I imagine. Wheeler is fond of quoting Gertrude Stein’s view of modern art, “It looks strange and it looks strange and it looks very strange, and then suddenly it doesn’t look strange at all and you can’t understand what made it look strange in the first place.”[xv]
The quantum realm lacks phenomenality; quantum physics has discovered that there are no elementary particles, no fundamental “building blocks” of reality─referred to as “solid, massy, hard, impenetrable moveable particles” by Newton, at least ones that can be said to exist and are real. In a quote often attributed to Bohr, “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”[xvi] Quantum entities aren’t real in the way we usually think of as being real─having no independent, intrinsic existence, they don’t exist “on their own,” and cannot be said to exist separate from their being observed. Heisenberg famously said, “The concept of the objective reality of the elementary particles has thus evaporated.”[xvii] Having no well-defined boundaries, elementary particles exist in a state of open-ended potentiality, “inhabiting” (if we can even talk about location for a nonexistent object) at the same time every possible universe they could potentially manifest in. To quote Heisenberg, “But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real, they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”[xviii] Elementary particles don’t “exist” in the common sense meaning of the word─not as a thing “out there,” existing in its own right─but if physicists treat them “as if”’ they exist, then they manifest “as if” they really exist and the physicists then get the right results in their equations. Everyone is happy, as long as no one asks what it all means.
Elementary, subatomic particles are simply a construct, a convenient way of talking about what is nothing but a set of mathematical relations concerning different observations. Because an atom does not have an independent, pre-existing reality, it is meaningless to ask, for example, what an atom really is. Atoms are only concepts physicists use to describe the behavior of their measuring instruments and the outcomes of their experiments. An idea such as an atom emerges from the interaction between the observer and the observed, mediated through the particular measuring devices used to make any specific observation. The properties of microscopic objects are inferred from the behavior of the physicist’s measuring apparatus, and are then treated “as if” they are real physical things. It is easy to mistake their model for reality, and think of the subatomic particles as actually being real things.
In quantum physics the wavefunction is not a wave of material things, but rather a probability wave; the wave that it is describing is, in a sense, not of this world. According to Heisenberg, “It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.”[xix] The wavefunction is just an abstract idea, which is to say that both the wavefuncton and the atom are essentially ideas, and outside of these ideas, both the wavefunction and the atom are not there. Only idea-like stuff could be fashioned out of ideas. To quote Stapp, “We live in an idea-like world, not a matter-like world.”[xx] The primal stuff of the quantum realm is dreamlike in character, idea-like rather than matter-like. Stapp continues, “the actual events in quantum theory are likewise idea-like.”[xxi] In the quantum world, there is no “place” for matter, in the same way that in the classical world there is no “place” for mind. Classical physics’ theory of a world of matter is converted by quantum physics into a theory of the relationship between matter and mind. Unveiling a great mystery, quantum physics is pointing out that the ultimate nature of the universe is more mind-like than matter-like. The “matter” of this world seems more akin to the phenomena of dreams rather than that of a solid, independent reality. As quantum physics has lifted the veil to our understanding the connection between mind and matter, and hence of consciousness, it can’t help but to at the same time deepen our insight into the nature and operations of our own being.
Quantum entities exist relationally with other interdependent quantum objects that themselves don’t exist as separate things, but rather in relation to other inter-related quantum objects ad infinitum; which is to say that there is no independent objectively existing quantum object that has a reality in and of itself; there is solely the quantum field. “The field,” as Einstein famously said, “is the only reality.” Thing-ness has dissolved into a state of “no-thingness,” a web of mutual interactivity with no fixed reference point to be found anywhere.[xxii] That quantum entities exist not in isolation from each other, but only in relation to each other is a reflection of our own nature─in a sense, we are quantum entities who don’t exist as separate objects, but rather, are interdependently interconnected with each other as well as the whole universe. The quantum field exists in relation to and not separate from the whole universe, including consciousness itself.
When two quantum entities interact, they become intermingled in such a way as to remain forever linked together.[xxiii] Exhibiting a form of contagious magic, each seemingly telepathically “knows” what the other is doing. Once connected, their wavefunctions become phase-entangled with each other, such that there are no longer two independent wavefunctions but one which encompasses both quantum entities forevermore. It is as if after their interaction each one leaves part of themselves with the other. At that point they are no longer separate in the way that they once seemed to be, but rather, even when separated by vast amounts of space and time, behave in concert, as if they are one entity. Moreover, quantum entities do not exist in isolation, but are always coupled with an environment (the measuring apparatus, the mind of the physicist, as well as the rest of the world). The act of measurement is not a private affair, but a public event in which the whole universe participates.
What if the quantum system under investigation is the whole universe, in which case there is nothing outside of itself to interact with? If, as quantum physics tells us, the whole universe is quantum to its core, this suggests that the universe is inseparably phase entangled with itself, as ultimately speaking, there is no part of itself that the universe is not nonlocally connected with. In a quantum universe such as ours, the universe is a unity, one big entangled state composed of and not separate from any of its interdependent constituent parts. Thinking of these parts as separate has nothing to do with the actual reality of things, but is purely a mind-game that does not correspond to the actuality of the world. These seemingly separate parts are connected in such a way as to nonlocally, over inconceivably vast distances of space and time, influence and provide instantaneous feedback for each other, “as if” communicating with each other faster than the speed of light. Imagine, in baseball terminology, a throw from deep centerfield to home plate, only the outfielder is on the other side of the universe, and the ball takes zero seconds to arrive. This is another aspect of quantum reality that greatly troubled Einstein─what he referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” The superluminal (greater than the speed of light) interaction involved in a nonlocal universe is not any form of interaction we are familiar with, as it doesn’t involve any expenditure of energy or exchange of information in the conventional manner. And yet, experiments in physics have shown that what Einstein derided as “voodoo forces” do indeed exist, at least as much as we do.
There is truly nothing like our universe; having no frame of reference outside of itself, there is nothing to compare it with. Our nonlocal universe’s spooky action-at-a-distance is an expression of the fundamental, indivisible wholeness of the universe, which is radically different from classical physics’ previous conception of the universe as composed of separate parts. At the quantum level, there is the radically new notion of intrinsic unbroken wholeness, a seamless interconnectedness among all of the universe’s seemingly separate parts; at the quantum level, the universe is “one” with itself. In a quantum universe, everything is related to everything else. At the moment of observation, the observer and the observed compose a single, unified whole. The quantum universe, as Bohr could not emphasize enough, can be properly conceived of only as an intricately interconnected dynamic whole. An expression of this undivided wholeness, which is the fundamental reality, is that consciousness is no longer separated from matter but somehow is essential to it.
Our universe is an emergent universe in which the whole is greater than the sum of any of its parts can even imagine. Playing off the famous saying “Less is more,” Wheeler has as a fondness for the expression “More is different.” A substance made up of a great number of molecules, for example, has properties that no one molecule possesses; its difference is qualitative rather than quantitative. Wheeler comments, “The rich complexity of the universe as a whole does not in any way preclude an extremely simple element such as a bit of information from being what the universe is made of. When enough simple elements are stirred together, there is no limit to what can result.”[xxiv] The behavior of the whole ecosystem cannot be described in terms of the language[xxv] or qualities that apply to any of its parts. Moreover, an emergent global property can feed back to influence the individuals who produced it in an interlocking, creativity-generating, self-sustaining and life-supporting feedback loop. Thus individuals and groups can begin to consciously tap into the energy that makes up the quantum realm─the zero point energy of creation itself─in a way which changes everything.
An observing consciousness does not “cause” the collapse of the wavefunction in the way we normally think of one thing linearly, mechanistically causing something else. At the quantum level the “material” world has melted away into an apparently immaterial field of quantum potentiality which is somehow synchronously and synergistically entangled with the minds of observers.[xxvi] What we call matter is, at the quantum level, not separable from some aspect of the observer’s mind, as if the quantum entities are embedded in the observing consciousness itself. Once these atomic events are registered in consciousness they are transformed into meaningful “information” (which itself is a meaningless idea without some sentient being who relates to and thereby “knows” the information), which somehow nonlocally loops back into and in-forms the atomic realm in what Wheeler refers to as a “meaning circuit.” In essence, the physical state of the universe acts to alter the mental state, which then instantaneously feeds back into and changes the physical universe. Once a bit of information is added to what we know about the world, at the same moment in time, that bit of information determines the structure of one small part of the world. Wheeler speculates, “Information may not be just what we learn about the world. It may be what makes the world.”[xxvii]
A PHYSICS OF POSSIBILITIES
Quantum entities exist in a realm of potentiality, in what is called a state of “superposition,” which is to say they hover in a ghostly state between existence and nonexistence, existing in all possible states up until the moment they are observed. Wheeler expresses the central point of quantum theory in a single, simple sentence when he says, “No elementary phenomenon is a (real) phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.”[xxviii] The necessity for this demarcation is the most mysterious feature of the quantum, for it holds the clue to the central principle of the construction of everything out of nothing. This tenet changes our traditional view that something has happened before we observe it; as Heisenberg writes, “The term ‘happens’ is restricted to the observation.”[xxix] At the moment of being observed, the wavefunction collapses in no time at all into a particular manifestation, while all of the other potentialities vaporize as if they had never existed.[xxx] From the quantum point of view, everything that might have happened influences what actually does happen. In a quantum universe such as ours, everything ultimately exists in a state of open-ended potential, what Heisenberg calls “transcendent potentia.” Quantum theory implies that the whole universe─including ourselves─is recreated and recreating itself anew every nano-second based on how we are dreaming it up. Wheeler comments in his own inimitable style, “We may someday have to enlarge the scope of what we mean by a ‘who.’”[xxxi]
Observation is the very act through which the quantum realm “discloses” itself. In quantum theory the moment of observation is where the rubber meets the road, which is to say, where abstract theory and empirical data meet and a specific actuality is realized and manifested out of a vast array of possibilities. It is important to note that we are always “at” the moment of observation, which is to say that we’re there right now! There is no other moment but the one eternal moment of observation. The tendency to think that the moment of observation is just one single discrete moment in a linear sequence of other moments is due to the long ingrained habit of thinking in terms of linear sequential time, i.e., a “linear time hangover.” In our role as observer-participants, it is as if we are on the cutting edge of the big bang itself, on the forefront of the moment of creation that is always taking place in this very moment, in the here and now.
Quantum theory is revealing to us the creative nature of our moment-to-moment experience. It should get our highest attention that observing these quantum objects is the very act that brings them into existence. When we observe an atom to be someplace, quantum physics tells us that it is our looking that caused it to be there. Just like a rainbow can’t be said to exist until the moment that it is observed (as it is made up of light, moisture, and an eye), quantum entities can’t be said to exist until the moment of observation. Quantum theory reveals that there is nothing inherently real about the properties of an object that we measure; it is as if we ourselves are intimately involved in producing the results of our own measurements. Our discovery of a quantum entity in a very real sense “causes” it to be there, which implies that there is no physically real world independent of our observation of it. Before these entities are observed they don’t really exist: there is nothing we can say about them; they are “unspeakable.”
Wheeler sometimes used a baseball analogy to illustrate this situation. Talking about how they call balls and strikes,[xxxii] some umpires say “I call them the way I see ’em,” which is an expression of the subjective, projective nature of our perception. A second umpire might say “I call them the way they are,” which is an expression of there being an objectively existing reality not dependent on observation, which was Einstein’s point of view. Wheeler then quotes a quantum umpire who would say “They ain’t nothing till I call ’em,” which is an expression of a quantum baseball game in which nothing exists until it is observed. The properties of quantum objects aren’t inherent to the object, but instead emerge from and are created by interactions with their environment as well as their relationship to observers and their inescapably creative acts of observation.
We can use light as an example: it is well known that light displays either wave-like or particle-like qualities depending upon the experimental set-up and how it is observed. To be more accurate, the wave-like or particle-like behavior that we observe in light is not a property of light per se, it is a property of our interaction with light. If, as quantum physics attests, there is no independent, external objective reality, then light, be it in its wave-like or particle-like aspect, cannot be said to exist separate from our interaction with it. In other words, light has no properties independent of us. What we are saying about light is true of everything; what we experience is not external reality, but our interaction with what our minds construe to be an external reality.
Wheeler likens how we create “reality” out of nothing but our interactions to a slightly skewed, surprise version of the party game “twenty questions.” In the regular version of the game, someone leaves the room, and everyone decides on a word. The person is allowed to ask a series of yes or no questions until they feel that they have enough information to guess the word. Wheeler tells the story that he was the one sent out of the room, and when he came back and began asking his yes or no questions, his friends were taking longer and longer to answer. The tension was building in the room, until he finally guessed the word to be “cloud,” at which point the whole room bursts out into hysterical laughter. His friends explained to him that they had decided to not decide on a predetermined word, and were play-acting “as if” they had decided on a particular word based on nothing but the answers they were giving, the only rule being that every answer had to be consistent with all previous answers. There was no word that existed until the very moment of Wheeler’s guess. Wheeler’s questions and interactions with his friends helped create, or to say it differently─“magically conjured”─the word in the same way that physicists’ and their measuring apparatuses’ interactions with the subatomic realm actually create the elementary particles they are measuring. To talk about the word “cloud” existing “in the room”─i.e., in the “minds” of Wheeler’s friends─before Wheeler’s guess is not accurate, in the same way that the elementary particle wasn’t “in the universe” before the experiment, having no existence prior to being measured. Similarly, in our inquiries into the nature of the universe it is easy to imagine that the final answer already exists, which we will one day uncover, without realizing that the very questions we ask and the actions we take condition and help to create the answers we get back. If Wheeler had asked different questions or the same questions in a different order, he would have ended up with a different word. The idea that the word “cloud” was sitting there, waiting to be discovered, is in Wheeler’s words “pure delusion and fantasy.”
In discussing the surprise version of the game of twenty questions as illustrative of how physicists participate in producing the results of their experiments, Wheeler painstakingly makes the point that the power he had to bring about the word “cloud” was only partial. Similarly, the experimenter has some substantial influence on what will happen to the electron by the choice of experiments he will perform, i.e., “the questions he will put to nature;” but there is always a certain unpredictability about what any given one of his measurements will disclose, i.e., “what answers nature will give.” This unpredictability is because the rest of the universe is always inescapably involved in any observation that we make. Quantum reality is not subjective─a mere figment of the imagination─just as it is not objective. The quantum dimension is the bridge, the intermediate realm between the subjective mental realm “in here” and the seemingly objective world “out there,” somehow coupling the two.
Quantum entities don’t “have” or “possess” intrinsic properties. The fact that the properties of these quantum objects is a function of our observation and that there is no substance, no separately existing intrinsic quantum object separate from its properties, is an expression of these quantum objects having no independently existing objective reality. They are not real in the way we commonly think of something being real. And yet, we ourselves, as well as the experimental instruments physicists are using to measure these not-real quantum objects, are made of the same quantum stuff that itself isn’t real in the ordinary sense. This brings up a related question: how does the mass-less, intangible photon, which has zero weight, give rise to even a single particle that has mass, not to mention the massive weight of the whole universe?[xxxiii] Simply put, there aren’t any nuts and bolts at the quantum level. We can’t visualize the quantum world, not because we know too little, but because we know too much. Though beyond our imagination, nature has no trouble, however, producing such quantum entities; indeed, such entities are what this whole wide world is made of.
The universe appears in one way, but exists in another. Behind the apparent solidity of everyday objects lies a world of open-ended potentiality. Physics has penetrated to the very core of material, seemingly objective reality and has found nothing that can be said to ultimately exist beyond or outside of our observation of it. It is as if objective reality has slipped beyond our grasp, beyond concepts, beyond even the concept of existence and nonexistence. To quote one of the most important astrophysicists of the first part of the twentieth century, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, “We have found a strange footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories, one after another, to account for its origins. At last, we have succeeded in reconstructing the creature that made the footprint. And lo! It is our own.”[xxxiv] Exploring the farthest reaches of the outside micro-world brings us right back to our inner selves. We can never speak about nature without, at the same time, speaking about ourselves. Poetically expressing the same realization, Wheeler asks, “What is Out There? ’Tis Ourselves?”[xxxv]
Quantum theory points out that the “real world” is not classical, but quantum mechanical. Rather than the quantum realm being illusory, quantum physics points out that the appearance of the macroscopic, conventional world can be likened to a holographic optical illusion produced by the interaction of our sense faculties with quantum reality. Quantum theory insists that our everyday world is embedded in quantum reality, that our day-to-day world is quantum through and through, which is to say that the quantum realm is not separate from the world of ordinary objects. The world of the very small is co-extensive with the world at large. Quantum theory applies to big things as well as small; we can’t get to first base without quantum theory in dealing with such large-scale objects as stars, for example. And yet, our everyday world, with its chairs, trees and people, seems, at least to all appearances, not to be quantum at all, but quite real, and solid, very much in alignment with classical physics’ version of reality, with its one-at-a-time sequence of definite actualities. When we throw a baseball, for example, it has a continuous trajectory that can be measured. This is very different from probabilistic quantum entities, which are discontinuous, can take multiple routes to get somewhere at the same time and get to where they’re going in no time at all. And yet, quantum theory tells us that baseballs are quantum objects, too─they have a cloud of probability which collapses from uncertainty to certainty, but their quantum fluctuations are so microscopically small that they are entirely below the threshold of observation. The elementary particle and the baseball differ only in scale, not in principle. To quote physicist Hideo Mabuchi, it is as if “the universe were ruled by atoms’ aversion to the public embarrassment of quantum behavior writ large.”[xxxvi]
In the transition from the random uncertainty of the quantum realm, where particles ceaselessly spring into and out of existence, to the seeming solidity and orderly certainty of our everyday world, the question naturally arises, where is this boundary between the quantum world, where things don’t actually exist in a real way but in a state of potentiality, and our everyday world, where things at least appear to exist in a solid-seeming way? Wheeler asks the question, “If the world ‘out there’ is writhing like a barrel of eels, why do we detect a barrel of concrete when we look?”[xxxvii] How do the classical and quantum worlds join together? The quantum reality of the microworld is inextricably entangled with the classical reality of the macroworld, as the part has no meaning except in relation to the whole. And if the ordinary-seeming classical realm manifests out of the underlying quantum domain, where did the “weirdness” of the quantum realm go?[xxxviii] The moment of observation appears to be the link between the uncertainty of the quantum world and the apparent certainty of the classical world, for observation is the point at which what might happen (or, in a quantum physics sense, all the things that the quantum realm is doing simultaneously while “nothing is happening”) crystallizes into what does happen. As Heisenberg writes, “… the transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘actual’ takes place during the act of observation.”[xxxix] This brings up the question: How does the act of observation, of gaining mere information (i.e., knowledge or “software”), modify the state of macroscopic things (“hardware”)?
According to quantum theory, the whole universe is in a quantum state, which is to say that, at least in principle, there ultimately is no boundary between the microscopic/quantum realm and the macroscopic/classical realm. Though some physicists still cling to the idea that these two realms are separate, others consider it delusional to conceive of there being a distinction between the two. In any case, it certainly seems as if the boundary between the quantum world and the everyday, classical world is an extremely interesting place, the exploring of which could bring about great insights. Paradoxically, in quantum physics the macroworld determines, through the act of macroscopic observer-participancy, the microscopic reality that it itself is made of.
Wheeler calls the quantum principle the “Merlin principle” because of the way the ever-elusive quantum shapeshifts and, Mercury-like, changes form to continually escape our too-limited and limiting conceptions of it. Wheeler recounts, “You remember Merlin the magician; you chased him and he changed into a fox; you chased the fox and it changed to a rabbit; you chased the rabbit and it became a bird fluttering on your shoulder.”[xl] Just like trying to grasp a rainbow or chase after a projection, the quantum always eludes our grasp. If someone says that quantum theory is “completely clear” to them, it is Bohr’s opinion that “he has not really understood the subject.” There is always an element of uncertainty[xli] in describing quantum entities; they can never be known in their totality. We can never know both their position and momentum at the same time, which makes it impossible to pin these quantum objects down. It is not a question of building better technology to one day know both of these properties; it is “as if” these quantum entities don’t possess both of these qualities at the same moment. If we know where these quantum entities are, it is as if we pay a price, for then we don’t know where they’re going. Similarly, if we know where they’re going, we don’t know where they are. We reach a certain point at which one part or another of our picture of nature becomes blurred, and there is no way to refocus that part without blurring another part of the picture. Nature is so constructed that we can study one aspect of nature or another, without any possibility of studying both aspects simultaneously.
Not only do quantum objects not have a “path” in the normal sense of the word, but the very notion of having a path comes into question. These quantum objects can be at point A in one moment and─in what is called a “quantum jump”─instantaneously be at point B without having traversed a path between these different locations. Quantum physics has shown that not only is the full description of these quantum particles unknown, but, because they do not exist prior to being measured, they are ultimately unknowable.
It is not that the deeper reality is veiled and we can’t know it; rather, there is no deeper, independent reality based on our ordinary conceptions of what this means. Whereas in the mythical land of “Oz,” reality stems from the wizard’s conjuring trick, in the quantum realm, Bohr argued, there is no wizard. There is “nothing” behind the curtain; all we see is the formless archetypal play of phenomena itself, a display which is empty of inherent existence and inextricably linked to our consciousness and its various operations. This is both a display “to” our consciousness and an expression “of” our consciousness at the same time, as the distinction between subjective and objective reality dissolves.
As physicists have chased the quantum/Merlin principle, to quote Wheeler, “… in each ten years of its history, it’s somehow taken on a different color, each time growing more magnificent in plumage, more penetrating in meaning, and more comprehensive in power.”[xlii] The further we descend down the quantum physics rabbit hole, the more magnificent the plumage of this very strange quantum bird. The more we appreciate the quantum realm, the more it appreciates, and the more there is to appreciate, as if it’s the gift that never stops giving, a wish-fulfilling jewel beyond belief. As Wheeler reminds us, the quantum, the smallest stuff in the universe, is the crack in the armor that covers the secret of existence. Big stuff indeed! It is Wheeler’s opinion that in exploring this opening, “we are at the beginning, not the end.”
Etymologically, the word “science” comes from the Latin word “scire,” which means “to know.” What the founders of quantum physics realized is that the proper subject matter of science is not what is “out there,” but rather, what we can “know” about our world, which clearly includes us. At the quantum level science becomes inseparable from epistemology. Quantum physics has realized that it is no longer representing the state of, for example, an objectively existing elementary particle per se, but rather, only our “knowledge” of its apparent behavior, a subtle, but important difference. This knowledge is a state of mind, experienced in our subjective sphere of consciousness, rather than being a state of some actual, external, material thing. This “failure of thing-ness” is one of the fundamental features of the quantum world. In the quantum realm we never end up with things, but always with interactive relationships. Our “thing-king” mind can’t grasp or relate to the simplicity, elegance─and ungraspability─of the quantum realm.
Physicist Nick Herbert, author of the fine book Quantum Reality, calls the fundamental elements that the quantum realm are composed of “quantumstuff,” a (non)substance which, in his words, “combines particle and wave at once in a peculiar quantum style all its own.”[xliii] Wheeler’s colleague, physicist Wojciech Zurek, refers to this quantumstuff as “dream stuff.” This quantum dream stuff, the underlying fabric out of which what we call reality─which is to say, “everything”─is made of, is what is called “epiontic.” The word epiontic is the synthesis of the two terms “epistemic” (the root of the word “epistemology,” which has to do with the act of “knowing”) and “ontic” (the root of the word “ontology,” which has to do with “existence” and “being”). To say something is epiontic is to suggest something whose existence is intrinsically intertwined with the knowledge we have of it. To be epiontic is to imply that the act of knowing creates its being, which is to say that, just as within a dream, the act of perception creates the existence of whatever is perceived. At the quantum level, being and knowing, perception and reality, epistemology and ontology are inextricably entangled.[xliv] The world that appears to be an independent material world is constructed from “quantum epiontic dream stuff” which is of the nature of mind, or consciousness.
This quantum epiontic “dream stuff” is capable of producing the seeming solidity of the material world from out of the process of perception. To quote Smetham, author of the excellent book Quantum Buddhism: Dancing in Emptiness, “The appearance of the material world is a matter of deeply etched quantum ‘epiontic’ memes!”[xlv] The more often a particular perception takes place, the more likely it is to occur in the future.[xlvi] Perceptions which subscribe to the inherent existence of the physical world feed back and strengthen the tendency to perceive the world in this same way in the future, as well as making it more likely that the world will continue to appear “as if” it is inherently existing. If we buy into the perspective that the world objectively exists in and by itself, we have then fallen under a self-created and self-perpetuating spell, evoking evidence that simply confirms our original unexamined assumption. This is a process in which our mind’s own genius for co-creating reality is unwittingly turned against us in a way that can severely limit us, stifling the awareness of our options and thus crippling our greater potentials. We can become imprisoned by our belief in the objective truth of our perceptions in such a way that we hypnotize ourselves and literally become blind to our imprisonment, remaining convinced that we are simply “in touch with reality.”[xlvii]
The persistent appearance of the classical world is generated by innumerable sentient beings through a continuous web of rapidly repeated, habitual perceptions over vast stretches of time, which amounts to a collective inter-subjective feedback loop. Once the appearance of an apparently stable material world gains enough momentum it develops a self-sustaining pattern which confers a seeming immutability upon our world, a perception which literally becomes reinforced, inscribed and embedded into the very quantum ground of being. Solidifying the fluid dreamlike nature of our world, we then create a collective dream that seems by all appearances to be solid and fully classical. Referring to the outside world, Zurek writes that in whatever way it manifests it acts “… as a communication channel…. It is like a big advertising billboard, which floats multiple copies of the information about our universe all over the place.”[xlviii] The more often a perception of an independent, objective world is made, the more potent becomes the classical world’s advertising billboard campaign, increasing its broadcasting power as it further proliferates its meme into ever-more brains.
The viewpoint that is emerging from the cutting edge of quantum physics is that, instead of being an epiphenomenon of matter, consciousness is the ontological ground and driving force of the process of reality itself. Max Planck, the first person to propose the quantum nature of light and one of the first architects of quantum theory, commenting on what the new physics was revealing to humanity, famously said, “Mind is the matrix of all matter.”[xlix] Consciousness is in some mysterious fashion creating the “stuff” of the material world. Wheeler goes so far as to say, “In what medium does space-time itself live and move and have its being? Is there any other answer than to say that consciousness brings all of creation into being, as surely as space-time and matter brought conscious life into being? Is all this great world that we see around us a work of imagination?”[l] Quantum physics is nature’s way of telling us something. Does our imaginative, dreaming and visionary capacity link into the quantum realm, interfacing with and becoming a portal for the “divine creative imagination” to potentially transform our world through us?
We couldn’t imagine or “dream up” a more dreamlike physics than quantum physics if we tried. Quantum physics is the physics of the universal dream, in the sense that quantum physics is simultaneously pointing to the dreamlike nature of reality while being an expression of the very dreamlike nature at which it is pointing. Wheeler “confesses” that, in apparent moments of lucidity, “sometimes I do take 100 percent seriously the idea that the world is a figment of the imagination.”[li]
The discovery of the quantum observership-based nature of reality represents the first rupture in the armor of the classical chrysalis that has long encased the human mind and fettered the human spirit, tightly holding it in a state of slumber dreaming of a deterministic, clockwork cosmos. Irreversibly awakening out of its somnambulistic trance, humanity is going through an evolutionary metamorphosis in which it is unfurling its incandescent wings of creative imagination as it flies into the open-ended space of previously undreamt possibilities, releasing itself into the luminous imaginal sky of freedom.
- There is no objective reality independent of an observer.
- We live in a participatory universe. The observer affects what is observed by the mere act of observing.
- Quantum entities exist in a multiplicity of simultaneous potential states (called a superposition), hovering in an abstract realm between existence and nonexistence prior to being observed.
- There is no independent quantum entity separate from its properties. Its properties are a function of our observation. This is to say that these quantum entities aren’t real in the way we ordinarily think of something as being real.
- The act of observation is the very act which turns the potentiality of the quantum world into the actuality of the seemingly ordinary world.
- Our act of observation not only changes the present state of the universe, it reaches backwards in time and changes what we can say about the past. This turns our conception of linear time and causality on its head.
- The questions we ask make a difference.
- The universe is a seamless, undivided and instantaneously interconnected whole. This is to say that each part of the universe is interrelated with every other part in an immediate and unmediated way.
- An expression of this wholeness is the universe’s nonlocality, in which every part of the universe is related to and in communication with every other part. Our universe doesn’t play by the typical rules of third-dimensional space and time.
- Quantum entities can jump from one place to another without traversing the path in-between.
- The laws of physics are not written in stone, but are mutable.
- The quantum universe is not separate from consciousness; rather, it is an expression of consciousness. Mind and matter are no longer seen as separate.
- Our ordinary, day-to-day universe is quantum through and through.
- Quantum physics literally changes and transforms our mind, as it introduces a new way of thinking. It also helps us see the world differently, which helps the world to manifest differently.
- Quantum physics is showing us how we ourselves are moment by moment playing a key role in the creation of our experience, as well as in the genesis of the cosmos, in this very moment.
- Significantly altering Descartes’ famous principle, “I think therefore I am,” quantum physics would instead say, “I choose therefore I am.”
- Quantum physics is a revelation in living form: it is showing us the dreamlike nature of our universe.
[i] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 39
[ii] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 39.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 42-44.
[iv] Wheeler and Zurek, ed., Quantum Theory and Measurement, p. 200.
[vi] Note the similarity to Jung’s description of a synchronistic phenomenon as “an act of creation in time.”
[vii] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 130.
[viii] Wheeler and Zurek, ed., Quantum Theory and Measurement, pp. 196-7.
[ix] Ibid., p. 123.
[xi] Ibid., p. 227.
[xii] Wheeler, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, p. 337.
[xiii] Quantum theory was developed early in the twentieth century to explain the “mechanics” – the mechanism – governing the behavior of atoms.
[xiv] Zurek, van der Merwe and Miller, ed., Between Quantum and Cosmos, p. 11.
[xv] Quoted in Wheeler and Zurek, Quantum Theory and Measurement, p. 185.
[xvi] Quoted in Barrow, Davies and Harper, ed., Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity. p. 218.
[xvii] Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy.
[xviii] Ibid., p. 186.
[xix] Ibid., p. 41.
[xx] Stapp, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics, p. 221.
[xxii] Note the similarity to the Buddhist idea of “dependent co-arising” (also called interdependent co-origination), which is considered to be the very condition of and process by which empirical reality is constituted. This view is not a final affirmation about reality, as it doesn’t seek to define a reality external to the observer, but rather, is a way of seeing that focuses on how our experience of the world and ourselves arises. Similar to quantum physics, dependent co-arising is considered to be a milestone in human thought; its ever-deepening realization is one of the greatest and furthest reaching cognitive revolutions of our time.
[xxiii] Forty years ago, during my freshman year in college, I was visiting my best friend, who was a first-year physics student at Princeton. I accompanied him to his introductory physics class, and right before the class started, he leaned over, and in a very impressed voice whispered in my ear “John Wheeler is sitting right behind you.” He was close enough that I could have reached out and touched him. Unfortunately, the fact that John Wheeler was sitting behind me meant absolutely nothing to me at the time, for I literally had no idea who John Wheeler was. I now joke with my friends that Wheeler and my wavefunctions became phase-entangled at that moment.
[xxiv] Wheeler, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, p. 341.
[xxv] In light of the new worldview emerging from quantum physics, we have to develop a new form of language to describe heretofore un-navigated realms. We cannot speak about atoms, for example, in ordinary language. To quote Wheeler, “The kind of physics that goes on does not adjust itself to the available terminology: the terminology has to adjust in accordance with the kind of physics that goes on.” Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, p. 177. Based on the process-oriented nature of the quantum realm, our new language should be based more on verbs than nouns, and more on action, events and movements than on static things. To again quote Wheeler, “How can we hope to move forward with no solid ground at all under our feet? Then we remember that Einstein had to perform the same miracle. He had to re-express all of physics in a new language.” Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 294. Human language is a remarkable form of information processing, capable of expressing, well, anything that can be put into words.
[xxvi] Note how this is similar, and obviously related to Jung’s inquiries into synchronistic phenomena, in which the boundary between mind and matter dissolves.
[xxvii] Wheeler, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, p. 341.
[xxviii] Wheeler, Frontiers of Time, p. 4. Wheeler has been quoted saying this numerous times, sometimes with the word “real,” at other times without.
[xxix] Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, p. 52.
[xxx] There is another interpretation, however, known as the “Many-Worlds Interpretation,” that says that all of the other potentialities actually do occur but each in its own parallel universe.
[xxxi] Wheeler, At Home in the Universe, p. 307.
[xxxii] Over the course of this article, I have used numerous baseball analogies to elucidate quantum reality. Stealing a footnote from Wheeler’s autobiography, “My apologies to readers not familiar with baseball. You may need to consult a baseball fan.”
[xxxiii] The question naturally arises: How does the universe precipitate out of a field of pure light?
[xxxiv] Space, Time and Gravitation (1920)
[xxxv] Sarfatti, ‘Wheeler’s World: It from Bit?’ – Internet Science Education Project, San Francisco, CA.
[xxxvi] Barrow, Davies and Harper, ed., Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, p. 329.
[xxxvii] Wheeler, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, p. 330.
[xxxviii] It should be noted that as we stop solidifying the fluid, dreamlike nature of our universe and recognize its dreamlike quality, the more dreamlike and synchronistic (and hence, “weirdly”) it will manifest. Once we stop superimposing our own fixed and limited ideas upon its dreamlike fabric, we allow it to reveal its dreamlike magic. Once we let go our grasp, the universe will exhibit more synchronistic phenomena, which literally reveal the underlying quantum. We can use our imagination to deepen our understanding of this─when we are in a night dream, if we recognize that we are dreaming (instead of thinking the universe we are inhabiting is objectively real and separate from us), we allow the dream to reveal even more its dreamlike nature. For being like a dream, the universe is not separate from the consciousness that’s observing it, a realization which it continually reflects back to itself through us.
[xxxix] Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, p. 54.
[xl] Buckley and Peat, A Question of Physics, p. 61.
[xli] This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
[xlii] Buckley and Peat, A Question of Physics, p. 61.
[xliii] Herbert, Quantum Reality, p. 40.
[xliv] To make this point, Wheeler, in his classic text Quantum Theory and Measurement, quotes Art Historian E. H. Gombrich, “we can never neatly separate what we see from what we know…. what we call seeing is invariably colored and shaped by our knowledge (or belief) of what we see.” p. 203.
[xlv] Smetham, Quantum Buddhism: Dancing in Emptiness, p. 244.
[xlvi] Note the similarity to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of “morphogenetic fields.” Sheldrake is of the opinion that memory is inherent in nature, and that the “laws” of nature are more like habit patterns.
[xlvii] This is a characteristic of the psychic malady called “wetiko” that I write about in my recent book. Wetiko is a form of psychic blindness that believes itself to be sighted. When people are afflicted with wetiko, they react to their projections upon the world as if they are objectively existing, separate from themselves.
[xlix] “Das Wesen der Materie” (The Nature of Matter), speech in Florence, Italy, 1944 (from Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Abt. Va. Rep. 11 Planck, Nr. 1797)