Column by Glen Allport.
Exclusive to STR
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Hidden yet Fundamental Connections
I am fascinated by quantum mechanics, and particularly by what is called the quantum enigma (also known as the measurement problem). Among the most startling aspects of this enigma is that consciousness and physical reality are connected in some fashion, such that at the quantum level – the level of atoms and sub-atomic particles like photons and electrons – unobserved particles are not solid entities but merely clouds of probability. Conscious observation is what prompts a particle to assume specific physical reality. Indeed, the physical world – meaning the entire universe – may be created by conscious perception. Given that the role of conscious observation at the quantum level is well-proven and (almost) beyond dispute – which is not to say it is understood – it is unsurprising that some well-known and well-respected physicists believe that stars and galaxies also decohere (from clouds of probability into actual physical objects) upon observation, just as subatomic particles in the physicists' laboratories do. Is that idea too pedestrian for you? Perhaps you'd like to test-drive the "many worlds" interpretation, in which each possibility is resolved on observation into in its own newly-created universe.
Who would make up such crazy explanations? Answer: very smart people who are driven to desperate, counter-intuitive thinking by the consistently bizarre results of experiments. The explanations that physicists (and others) have come up with for those experimental results are bizarre only because the results themselves are bizarre. Nothing resembling a "sensible" explanation fits the actual, observed behavior of particles on the quantum level.
As we shall see later, the harnessing of quantum effects may be necessary to bring consciousness into being, so the connection between consciousness and quantum reality may be a two-way street.
There are similarities in the connections between consciousness and quantum reality, and the connections between compassion and liberty (or between love and freedom, if you prefer). The two sets of connections are not identical but both sets of connections are profound, fundamental, powerful, unavoidable (one cannot "finesse" one's way around them), yet easily missed. Indeed, most people seem not to perceive these connections – hardly surprising in the case of quantum effects, but more perplexing in the case of liberty and love, because those connections are not only quite real but central to the happiness and welfare of every human being.
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The famous "double slit" experiment
is an excellent introduction to quantum weirdness. Send a stream of subatomic particles (photons, say) through a slit towards a screen behind the slit, and you get a nice "bell curve" distribution of hits on the screen, with most in the middle and the number of hits tailing off towards either end. Graphing the results would give you a curve like this:
Add a second, parallel slit, and you get the interference pattern you’d expect, just as you would using water waves in a similar experiment. The crests and troughs of the two daughter waves (one wave from each slit) add to each other, in places canceling each other out (one trough + one crest) and in other areas intensifying the wave (two troughs or crests at the same point). A graph of photon hits on the screen in this interference pattern might look something like this:
But – here’s the "can’t be happening" part – send the photons through the double-slit apparatus one at a time until you’ve built up a pattern, and you STILL get the interference pattern instead of the bell curve. What is it, exactly, interfering with those individual photons? The most common answer: Each photon is interfering with itself. How? The unobserved photon exists only as a wave of probability, not as a particle, and thus acts as a water wave would: sending a daughter wave through each of the two slits; these two waves interfere with each other – thus an interference pattern is built up on the screen even from the one-at-a-time release of photons.
Now suppose you put a detector at each slit so that you KNOW which slit these individual photons are going through. The photons somehow notice this and – perhaps peeved at being spied upon – return to acting as if there were only one slit, so that instead of an interference pattern we again see a bell curve distribution. (Actually, the effect is not absolute, but instead reduces the interference significantly).
An individual photon somehow interferes with itself if (and only if) there are two slits in our experiment rather than one, AND if the slits are unobserved during the photon’s transit. Or perhaps something else equally weird is going on, but whatever the explanation, somehow a single photon "knows" that it should participate in creating an interference pattern when there are two unobserved slits, and that it should participate in creating a standard bell curve pattern when only one slit is present or when the slits are under observation.
Quantum weirdness shows up in other equally impossible ways, such as entanglement
. Two entangled objects influence each other’s behavior instantly (yes, faster than lightspeed) across any distance. How? We have no idea. Another party trick nature conjures up in the quantum realm is what might be called reverse causality: a future
event for one particle can determine what happens in the present
for another particle. (See the book Biocentrism
[discussed below], pp. 56-57 for a good example, or "Back From the Future" in Discover Magazine
). These are not rare or isolated events: bizarre behavior of one type or another shows up reliably in even the simplest quantum experiment. Indeed, much of the modern economy only exists because of such "impossible" quantum behavior. Your computer (and anything else using transistors
), your monitor, your DVD drive (and anything else using lasers
), and a great many other modern wonders would not function without quantum effects. A lot
more quantum-enabled technology
is under development; the 21st
Century is just getting started in more ways than one.
Beyond allowing for Donkey Kong, supermarket price-scanners, and other hallmarks of the modern world, quantum physics shows us that physical reality (or, depending on the interpretation you prefer, the version of physical reality we experience) is created by consciousness. Without conscious observation, the universe consists of probabilities instead of concrete, specific realities. This stunning observation (and it IS an observation, at least on very small scales) has been verified repeatedly in thousands of experiments.
Cue the Twilight Zone theme: Is your living room really there when you are out of the house? Maybe not. The sub-atomic particles that your living room is made of aren’t really there when you are away, except as clouds of probability, so is there any reason – other than your insistent but fallible common sense – to believe your entire living room doesn't become a cloud of probability waves whenever you leave the house – or even when you just walk into the next room? As mentioned, there are other ways the probabilities might resolve, such as to instantiate every possibility into its own universe – the "many worlds" interpretation.
All of this is so bizarre and counter-intuitive that for the most part, physicists avoid dealing with explanations for such behavior in favor of simply using the equations of quantum theory – which are stunningly accurate – to do whatever research or other work their jobs entail.
The weird phenomena described above are not in dispute, at least at very small scales. They are unexplainable with current knowledge and theory, and are strange beyond description, but the actual, measured phenomena are not in the least controversial. A century of experiments have proven that the phenomena are absolutely real and perfectly reliable – which is why they can be used as the foundation for so much modern technology.
Some popular books and films (What the Bleep do We Know!?
, for example) assert that quantum physics also proves the existence of ESP and other such abilities, but few physicists agree. There is
tantalizing data from a number of experiments (see Lynn McTaggart's The Field
for an overview) but most of the physics community is annoyed and embarrassed at what it sees as the misuse of quantum theory to support the existence of events, powers, and abilities that most physicists do not believe are
supported by the data.
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The Connections Between Love and Freedom
As I said earlier, the quantum enigma reminds me of the connected nature of love and freedom. In particular:
One cannot fully describe or understand either love or freedom without reference to the contributions of the other quality. For instance, taking away another's freedom – whether with actual slavery or some lesser form of coercion – is the opposite of loving them; love includes allowing others to live their own lives and to make their own choices, good or bad. Viewing the human world through a lens that focuses only or mostly on one of these qualities, or which lacks understanding of how they support each other, necessarily creates an unbalanced and incomplete understanding of the human world.
The linkage between love and freedom (or compassion and liberty, if you prefer that wording) is such that low levels of one quality bring about lower levels of the other quality.
For instance, a police state is not conducive to love and compassion. Police states (i.e., unfree societies) are toxic to love and thus reduce the levels of love and compassion in society. The defining characteristics of a police state include coercion, cruelty, and callousness – opposites of love. Coercion is not only unloving, it is actually a crime in most jurisdictions. Coercion also makes it more difficult for people to feel and to express love. Why, then, are societies organized around authoritarian governments that use coercion for funding and for so many other things?
From the other direction, a society of unloving sociopaths has little chance of becoming (or remaining) free and prosperous. Empathy and compassion for others (which lead to ethical behavior, charity, and kindness) are necessary for the long-term health of any society.
High levels of one quality encourage high levels of the other quality; more love includes and encourages more freedom (loving people don't feel the need to control others). More freedom also includes and encourages more love. These correlations are not as strong as they might be; widespread understanding of the importance of both love and freedom is therefore also needed to ensure against drifts into cruelty or tyranny. For example, many people who show empathy for others can be made to believe that coercive government is a good way to support compassion, despite the historical record of impoverishment, mass murder, and other horrors shown by large, supposedly compassionate governments, and despite the inefficiency and tendency to corruption that, for obvious reasons, characterize even the best of governments.
In sum, love and freedom support and ultimately require each other. It can appear otherwise for a time (for a few decades under "compassionate" versions of coercive socialism, for example) but never for long – and if you look closely, you will see that cruelty and the destruction of love begin right at the beginning.
The connections between compassion and liberty suggest that these two qualities are not distinct and separate, but are entwined at a very deep level. These connections between love and freedom are not speculative; you can see them at work throughout history and in the present day, something I have elaborated on in previous columns. Always and everywhere, diminishing one quality harms the other.
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Back to quantum theory for a moment and to the books that sparked my thoughts for this column. The Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness
by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner is a gentle but detailed introduction to the subject. After describing quantum theory, its history, and the facts discovered by experiment that create the enigma, the authors discuss ten
different, current interpretations of quantum theory – all of which are staggeringly bizarre. (One of these interpretations may be "true" – meaning "a good explanation for what is actually going on" – but physicists do not agree on which interpretation that might be). Physicists do agree on the data
and on the equations of quantum theory, and the authors assert that "not a single one of [quantum theory's] predictions has ever been wrong" – but again, the meaning
of quantum theory is another story. What sort of universe does quantum theory describe? That
question is up for grabs.
Here again, this mirrors the situation in psychology and in our views of human nature generally. The many schools of thought on personality theory, on child-rearing, on politics, on morality, and on other topics related to the nature of human beings AS human beings (as opposed to as collections of sub-systems, such as cells, organs, and so on) show that on the subject of human nature, we are still in a pre-paradigmatic state. No single, widely understood and widely accepted framework exists that describes human nature and which makes useful, accurate predictions about the human condition. (In this case also, such a framework may have been formulated but no framework on the topic, regardless of accuracy, is universally – or even close to universally – agreed upon as correct). Result: dozens of mostly-contradictory political viewpoints and many views of what humans are like and thus of how children should be treated, of how other adults should be treated, and of nearly everything else that affects the human condition. Rather a mess, in other words.
Inevitably, some of the paradigms (or frameworks or systems or theories or philosophies or whatever you prefer to call them) created over the centuries for understanding the human condition have been better – more accurate, closer to reality, more in tune with our genetic heritage, more conducive to healthy personal and social outcomes – than others. Some frameworks have reliably led to mass poverty and starvation, or to frequent human sacrifice, or to constant war, or to other widespread and severe misery. Other frameworks have generated healthier results. Ideas matter, and in this area they matter a lot.
I'll return to the topic later in this essay.
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Does Consciousness Require Harnessing Quantum Effects?
For a more detailed look at quantum theory, focused especially on how it relates to consciousness – including and especially in the sense that quantum mechanics may play a central role in creating
consciousness – consider the 1989 classic The Emperor’s New Mind
by Roger Penrose (not available as a Kindle or other eBook, sadly. The Quantum Brain: The Search for Freedom and the Next Generation of Man
by Jeffrey Satinover is another good read on the topic – and an easier one – that is
available for Kindle).
There is enough math and difficult reading in The Emperor's New Mind to put many people off, but Penrose himself suggests readers skip whatever sections they get stuck on – basic understanding of the idea does not require knowing every detail. In any case, much of the text, including a terrific description of the double-slit experiment and other cornerstones of the quantum enigma, many with useful diagrams or drawings, will be quite readable by anyone interested in the topic.
Penrose is describing quantum theory merely in preparation for the main point of the book, which is to describe and defend his belief that certain types of quantum actions within biological structures (he discusses some possibilities) bring consciousness into being
. This would mean that no amount of algorithmic computation could ever create consciousness, and thus that that no classical computer will ever become conscious. Without specific biological structures (or, one assumes, artificial copies that are functionally equivalent) at work harnessing
specific quantum interactions, all the computing power in the universe will never create a self-aware machine. I hope Penrose is right on this score; we have too many humans
without empathy for others as it is, and a conscious machine might or might not be programmed in a way that would lead to empathic behavior. Furthermore, even the best programming can be changed over time (version 1.2: now with less of that pesky empathy!)
or can lead to unexpected and negative consequences (a common SciFi theme, as in I, Robot
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An Infinite Stream of New Universes, and Thoughts on the Fundamentals of Knowledge
One of the best-known interpretations for the quantum enigma is the "many worlds
" idea, in which an infinite number of new universes are constantly splitting off from this one. For example, in this interpretation, Schrodinger's famous cat – either alive or dead in its box, depending on whether or not cyanide has been released by a mechanism triggered by the non-predictable decay of an atom (and ignoring the likelihood that the cat's consciousness is enough to collapse the wave function) – is not
in a superposition state, not
in the form of a probability wave waiting for an observer to collapse the wave, not dead-and-alive at the same time inside the box (as, for instance, the Copenhagen interpretation
would have it), but fully alive in one universe and dead as a rock in another. You aren't collapsing a wave function (now more often called "decoherence") when you look in the box: you are merely learning which of those two universes you happen to be in. If your kitty is alive, another version of you is opening the box in another universe and finding a less pleasant outcome. Did I mention this is happening not just with you and your cat, but with you at every moment of your life
, and with every other person at every moment of his or hers
, and probably with every other conscious entity, from dogs and (ahem
. . .) cats down maybe to insects or even lower life-forms – no one knows "how much" consciousness it takes to affect quantum actions – at every moment in time, forever
. This would seem to be a LOT of universes – hugely more than most discussions of the idea would lead a reader to believe. Imagine trillions of gigatons of mass (a huge understatement) coming into being instantly, along with the intricate details of every cell in every living thing and the billions of galaxies – each with billions of stars – that each new universe contains. Imagine an infinite number of these new universes coming into existence at every moment in time for every sentient being
. Questions immediately arise, such as "How can I find out the email addresses, phone numbers, and Twitter accounts for my friends in some of these parallel worlds?"
Zillions of brand new universes being created every second? Who could take such a thing seriously?
Big-name physicists, that's who. Michael Nielsen is quoted in Wikipedia
as saying that "at a quantum computing conference at Cambridge in 1998, a many-worlder surveyed the audience of approximately 200 people… Many-worlds did just fine, garnering support on a level comparable to, but somewhat below, Copenhagen and decoherence."
That says something about how relentlessly bizarre quantum reality is, as revealed by actual experiment. In The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World
, David Deutsch writes that "the 'many-universes interpretation' of quantum theory . . . remains at the time of writing a decidedly minority view among physicists. In the next chapter I shall speculate why that is so despite the fact that many well-studied phenomena have no other known explanation."
As the Nielsen quote above shows, not everyone agrees with Deutsche that there is "no other known explanation" but The Beginning of Infinity is a great read, far more engaging than most popular books on science. Deutsch writes with infectious enthusiasm and displays great clarity and depth of understanding on the nature of science and of knowledge. He argues "that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what I call good explanations." (Quantum theory includes a great many observations, predictions, and powerful equations, but it is not yet an explanation. The various interpretations of the quantum enigma are attempts to explain the eerie behavior we find at the quantum level).
Deutsch makes (what I believe are) some head-slapping errors, as in his brief remarks about the September 11, 2001 attacks
in the United States, but the man also points out (in a theme that runs throughout the book) that "All observations are, as Popper put it, theory-laden,
and hence fallible, as all our theories are." Fair enough.
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Biocentrism and Thoreau
In dramatic opposition to the many-worlds interpretation, biocentrism
is the view that the universe does not actually exist in any concrete form except when and where it is being observed. Yes: that means the computer you are using right now ceases to exist when you leave the room or even when you just look away for a moment.
On the one hand, that idea seems insane. On the other hand, it is exactly what we observe at the quantum level: particles exist only as waves or fields of probability until they are measured or otherwise observed – when they either decohere into actual particles, instantiate into a multiple universes, or – something
. This has now been seen even in larger molecules, incidentally, not just subatomic particles. Biocentrism insists it is true for stars, galaxies, and your living room as well as for electrons and such. Real scientists hold this point of view. John Wheeler of Princeton, for example (a towering figure who held many prestigious awards), believed in a "participatory universe
in which observers are required
to bring the universe into existence" (from Biocentrism
, below; italics in original). When conscious observation began, the universe – or the observed portions of it, anyway – collapsed from a cloud of probabilities into a real state. Wheeler is quoted (in the Wikipedia article about him
) as saying "We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago."
Bob Berman and Robert Lanza make a detailed case for this mind-bending view in Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe
. There are a few chapters of a personal nature that I found off-topic, but the rest of the book is a joy to read and an excellent, detailed look at what quantum mechanics might actually be telling us about the universe. The authors quote many famous figures in physics, as you'd expect, but also Thoreau (repeatedly), Emerson (ditto), and other non-physicists. I remember wishing, while reading this book, that I could talk with Thoreau and ask him to clarify some of the things he wrote in light of the modern understandings that underpin quantum theory. When Thoreau wrote "But all these times and places and occasions are now and here" and (of Walden)
I am its stony shore,
And the breeze that passes o'er;
In the hollow of my hand
Are its water and its sand
– did he mean such things only poetically, or did he actually entertain a view of reality similar to biocentrism?
As espoused by Berman and Lanza, biocentrism includes denying the reality of both space and time, which the authors see as constructs that life uses to understand and deal with the underlying reality of "all time is now" and "every point in space is one" and "the universe itself is in my conscious mind, NOT 'out there' in any real sense" (my words). If this is what Thoreau and various others in history meant, then I am even more impressed with them than I was before – not because I have any sense for what those ideas might mean, but because coming up with a biocentric view of reality, much less intuitively understanding it, without the prompting of quantum theory, suggests that something interesting is going on in that person's mind.
Lest I give the impression that biocentrism is yet another New Age example of taking quantum ideas as an excuse to claim that humans can time-travel by simple means of will (or other such over-reach, as most physicists see it), I should point out that Berman and Lanza explicitly disavow such things. Like the many-universes interpretation, biocentrism simply takes known and uncontestable experimental results and builds an interpretation (an explanation, as Deutch would put it) for those results.
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The Love & Freedom Connection is Far More Important to Understand than the Quantum Enigma
Quantum effects and many other things went unnoticed or misunderstood for millennia because relevant objects, effects, or underlying causes were undetectable (or nearly so) until enabling technology was introduced. The microscope let people see single-cell organisms for the first time, leading to a new paradigm of infectious disease and to breakthroughs in medicine and public health. The telescope let Galileo and others see the heavens in dramatically-enhanced detail, bringing new understandings about the solar system and the cosmos generally. Technology was needed to enhance human perception in these cases, just as technology was needed to begin exploring the quantum world.
But the human condition requires no technological advance to make it visible to human beings. Special tools and modern technologies are not needed to see that people are healthier and happier when they have freedom and love in their lives. Something else – such as psychological defenses – must be in play.
Freedom and love each
have deep and startling effects. Simply reducing coercion in a society (that is, increasing freedom
) is incredibly powerful and positive. Hong Kong
went from serious poverty in 1950 to stunning prosperity in a single generation under Britain's (relatively) laissez-faire
administration, while right next door in Mao's mainland Communist China, millions of Chinese with the same genetic and cultural heritage were suffering severe, ongoing poverty and repeated mass famines. When China itself began giving people more freedom – especially economic freedom – after Mao's death, the nation rapidly became an economic powerhouse, lifting hundreds of millions out of grinding poverty and saving who-knows-how-many from starvation.
All of that has been widely reported. For that matter, a few minutes of research will show you that the Chinese economic miracle is strongly concentrated in areas of China where government regulation and other interference are lowest
. When the government mostly looks away and allows people to run their own lives and businesses, then people create the lives they want – and they don't
want grinding poverty or other forms of misery. The process is messy (as it was in America in the 1800s) but then, life is messy. The clean-up comes as a natural result of prosperity; people begin to feel more concern for the environment, for safety, and for other first-world values when their basic material needs are met.
Likewise, the benefits of a gentle, loving early life are easily visible and on display in many places today and throughout history. Infants and children who are not traumatized and who experience consistent love are physically and emotionally healthier throughout life
. The beneficial effects of love (and, conversely, the negative effects of unlove
and of early trauma
generally) are staggering – far stronger than most believe
And the link between love and freedom, you ask? What about the non-quantum entanglement that pushes one of those qualities in the direction the other is heading, and which makes it difficult to maintain high levels of one in the face of low levels for the other?
I suggest Alice Miller for a starting point; she produced some of the strongest, best-documented, and easiest to understand writings on the topic I know of. Her classic For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence
(paperback only, I'm afraid) links early cruelty not only to individual acts of violence but to national insanities such as Hitler's rise to power. For a quick web link, consider Adolf Hitler: How Could a Monster Succeed in Blinding a Nation?
(and please don't hold the child-like site graphics against the essay; those graphics reflect the nature of The Natural Child Project
and it's intended readership: mostly parents of small kids). If you don't fully buy the idea that LIBERTY and COMPASSION (or however
you prefer to word it) REQUIRE each other, then PLEASE read Miller's For Your Own Good
, at a minimum. Many of the columns you'll find in my STR archive address the same topic.
Mankind either removes its blinders on the connections between love and freedom, or future generations will know very little of either quality.