Something very interesting happens at the convergence of consciousness and quantum mechanics. It’s something which you can catch a glimpse of out of the corner of your eye, but when you look right at it, it disappears.
I grew up in the world of science – my degree is in mathematics. For the first thirty or more years of my life, big bang theory, evolution, and the world of mathematics served as my religion. I drifted away for many years, but after a hiatus, I’ve started to look closely at science once more. I’m returning, though, after over fifteen years of regular and continuing meditation, and this has given me a very different perspective of science and has opened up new lines of philosophical inquiry. I have recently started exploring quantum mechanics from this new perspective.
First some basics.
Everyone has heard of quantum mechanics but few understand it. I’ll be honest: I’m not one of them. But I do grok the basics principles, which are not that hard – so much so that I find it a shame they are not generally more accessible.
Quantum mechanics arose at the beginning of the Twentieth Century when the scientific community was finding it increasingly obvious that certain observed phenomena were inconsistent in major ways with Newtonian mechanics – the mathematical framework that had lasted two hundred years. The major inconsistencies are:
- “Black box radiation:” When a dark material is heated, the distribution of frequencies of radiation produced is not as predicted. In particular, less high frequencies (visible light and infrared) energy is produced than expected, whereas more infra-red is produced;
- The photoelectric effect: When light hits a polished metal surface, electrons can be emitted. Reducing the brightness of the light decreases the number of electrons but not their speed, whereas keeping light at the same intensity but reducing its frequency (changing from blue to red and into the infra-red) below a certain level (which differs by metal) results in no electrons being produced;
- Inconsistent heat capacities: If materials are heated with radiation at a low frequency (infra-red and even lower) – which again differs by material – they absorb less heat than would be expected.
The solution to these problems was developed over time by many great scientists, most notably Einstein and Planck. In simple terms the solution (quantum theory) posits that (1) light exists in discrete “particle-waves” (later called photons); and (2) atoms can absorb energy only in discrete quanta: if the energy of a photon is too low, it simply cannot be absorbed. Apply these two ideas to the problems listed and they can be explained.
Quantum mechanics expanded as the scientific community slowly recognized – and performed experiments to demonstrate – that all matter and energy has this same particle-wave duality. The mathematics of quantum mechanics can become very complicated, and the detailed workings of the world it describes can seem pretty incomprehensible, but at a basic level quantum mechanics is governed by simple, accessible principles:
- everything – and that really is everything: quarks, electrons, molecules, people and planets – simultaneously has a wave nature and a particle nature (this has been demonstrated for photons, electrons, atoms and even fairly large molecules; scientists are moving towards experiments to prove the wave-nature of viruses);
- for any given “thing” the wave can only exist at discrete wavelengths – think in terms of the string on a guitar which is constrained at its ends and can only vibrate at full integer fractions of its length;
- the wave form is essentially a probability field;
- each “thing” has complementary properties – such as location and momentum – and the specific value of both such properties cannot be known at the same time.
The principles are simple, but the world that quantum mechanics describes is pretty weird. Weirdest of all is the notion that the world exists as a superposition of quantum states – various different possible states of different defined quantities – each existing simultaneously as a possibility. In mathematical terms, the superposition is governed by what is called the “wave function,” which can be seen in part as defining probabilities of the different states. When an observation of the system occurs, the wave function collapses and a particular state is chosen. This happens at every level, from the micro to the macro.
But what is an observation?
A lot has been written on this topic, and while I will not presume to a scientific perspective, I will offer something that occurs to me from my meditation practice: call it a meditator ‘s thought experiment. I think something mysterious happens when we make a judgment.
It seems to me that when I judge, in a sense I am defining reality. When I identify something as good or bad, as something I want or don’t want, as something that is big or small, I define and limit my world. I reduce possibilities. In a sense I collapse the superposition of all of the possible worlds into the one I decide to see. By contrast, when I sit in a deep meditative state, I can find myself not judging, not observing, and in that place there is a sense in which possibilities are much wider.
The practical consequence of this is that when I emerge from meditation my mind is more open, possibilities are greater, and I am more creative, more connected, more compassionate. When, by contrast, I am in a period of stress and judging intensely, I am closed, limited, narrow and uncreative; I am without connection or compassion. When I am open and in a meditative mind I am porous, less affected by the turbulence of the world, and less likely to create disharmony with my own actions. When I am more judgmental, not only do I collapse my own world, but I act in a way with others that is more likely to push them to judgment and to limit their worlds too.
I don’t want to push this analogy too far, but it seems to me that there is at least something very interesting here. It’s a huge leap, I know, but I hope it is a challenging and stimulating one. At its largest level, in a harmonious world many people are able to hold different possibilities at the same time without judging, are able to grant that different religions and worldviews exist essentially in superposition with each other, none right or wrong, none better or worse, just equally valid possibilities. In a disharmonious world, on the other hand, many people judge and collapse this worldview-wave-function to their own religion, their own political system, their own worldview, and the world is more limited, less peaceful, less loving.
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