Can Reality Set Us Free? The Puzzle of Complementarity (Part 2)

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University

Reality has gone into a strange, dark place – quite literally. Historically, quantum physics and the theory of relativity are responsible for demolishing the familiar world presented to us by the five senses.  It first dismantled things we take for granted, such as solid objects, fixed linear time, and straightforward cause and effect. Now in its second century, the quantum model in particular has become even more unsettling. The universe, allegedly, is 96% dark matter and energy, which reduces the visible world to a thin mist dispersed unevenly through the unknown, unseen “real” reality.

In our first post we proposed that living as if nothing has changed in the nature of reality isn’t satisfactory.   What if “real” reality is affecting our lives all the time? It’s a fascinating possibility.  To explore it, we propose that the basic principles of quantum physics do, in fact, apply to the everyday human world, and when one accepts that they are pervasive, their weirdness diminishes, and the result is a leap forward for human evolution.   The first principle we’re exploring is complementarity, which serves to unite all kinds of things that seem totally different or even opposite, such as the two aspects of quanta, which can behave like particles or waves depending on how an observer measures them. (Please read the first installment in this series of posts, where we explored the nature of duality.)

In everyday language, complementarity tells a physicist that apparent opposites need each other – they are complementary – in order to fill out a complete picture.  At first glance, complementarity seems exotic and arcane, because its applications are most clearly relevant at the smallest measurable scale of Nature, the domain of intricate quantum-mechanical calculations. The scale of this realm is billions of times smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.  But this doesn’t mean that a wall divides the micro and macro world.  There is only one reality, not two.  If the behavior of a quark looks totally different from the behavior of, say, the human brain, this may be illusory.  The dividing wall could be conceptual, merely an idea we stubbornly cling to.

The six blind men in the Indian fable who try to describe an elephant can only grasp one part of the beast. The blind man holding on to the tail says that an elephant is like a rope; the one holding the trunk says an elephant is like a snake; the one holding a leg says an elephant is like a tree, and so on.  The fable was meant as an allegory, telling us that the five senses and the rational mind (the six blind men) can’t grasp Brahman, the All that represents reality itself.  That problem hasn’t gone away; it morphed into a quantum principle, which says that some aspects of quantum behavior are always hidden from view the moment one decides which part of the elephant to grab on to.  Every measurement gives us a bit of information while the rest remains concealed. (By analogy, if you snap a photo of an ocean wave approaching the beach, you can measure how tall the wave is but not how fast it’s moving – your snapshot freezes reality in place, losing one of its key aspects: reality is always on the move.)

Complementarity enters to collate all the snapshots.  It provides a mosaic that seems reassuring, because every snapshot has to be compatible with every other, no matter how different, just as the elephant’s tail and leg, which seem so unalike to the blind men, actually belong to one beast.  Unfortunately, in the human world, a mosaic isn’t good enough. We operate by using hidden connections, shifting ambiguity, and uncertainty alternating with knowledge, not to mention imagination, faith, intuition, and creative leaps. Our existence is so dynamic that it would take a kind of super (or expanded) complementarity to bring any kind of unity.  As board games go, living a single day as a human being is like multi-dimensional chess as compared to Chinese checkers.

Finding the mathematics that unites wave and particle took the collaboration of great minds like Einstein’s and Bohr’s, but you and I apply super complementarity all the time.   We leave the visible world, enter a shadowy twilight domain, and fetch a phantom which then emerges as a new object to be experienced – that’s exactly what it means to remember something.  The new object consists of firings in the brain that make a memory feel real; the shadowy domain is a mysterious place where memories exist without a physical trace (in a virtual state, to use the jargon of physics); an untapped memory is invisible and yet filled with the potential to become real.

The two aspects of memory are as opposed as wave and particle yet replete with far more mystery. Neuroscientists still don’t understand how the mind/brain creates whole memory experiences, and there is a strong nonlocal aspect to it.  People often create false memories and many memories we recall are often subtly different from what actually happened.  As the pioneering researcher Wilder Penfield showed in 1960s stimulating subregions of the hippocampus (or even single cell columns during surgery) can bring back specific memories. Physicists are accustomed to the notion that a quantum can be either local or non-local; in particle form it has a specific location, but in wave form the quantum field where waves arise spreads throughout spacetime. Since no one has proposed a location for memories when they are mere potentials waiting to be awakened, could it be that they, too, are non-local?

As it relates to memory (or any mental event), super complementarity isn’t a principle but a process. It’s baffling that you can remember your tenth birthday, your first kiss, or the word “hippopotamus” without knowing how you do it.  The history of physics testifies that reality does its thing long before anyone can explain how (apples fell off trees before Newton, after all).  The process of memory bridges two worlds, hiding one from the other while making sure that they are indissolubly joined.  We should be thankful that this is so.  When you remember something, the neurological activity in your brain is hidden from your awareness.  It takes thousands of orchestrated neuronal firings to produce even the simplest thought, and if you had to be aware of them, or do the orchestrating yourself, bit by bit, mental life would break down, and with it, everyday life as we know it.

On the positive side, the mind is intensely interested in itself, and it isn’t satisfied with the status quo.   Maybe super complementarity can be improved. There are amazing examples of people who fetch answers from the invisible domain far beyond any normal capacity.  Recently, for example, the death of Shakuntala Devi, “the human computer,” was announced, at age 83. The child of circus performers in India, she exhibited innate mathematical abilities that defy explanation.  As the New York Times reported,

In 1977, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, she extracted the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds, beating a Univac computer, which took 62 seconds.

The application of complementarity to such a feat isn’t obvious, until you realize that Shakuntala Devi didn’t perform her calculations one digit at a time; she apparently went to the place where the answer already exists.   As the Times notes,

In 1980, she correctly multiplied two 13-digit numbers in only 28 seconds at the Imperial College in London. The feat, which earned her a place in the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, was even more remarkable because it included the time to recite the 26-digit solution.

Such a feat has a distinctly quantum ring to it. In the classical world, events are explained in linear time with cause linked to effect like dominos in a row.   Doing arithmetic follows this model, except when it doesn’t. Shakuntala Devi’s ability stands for a whole host of mental operations that aren’t assembled by linking one bit with another in sequence. If you are asked to see your mother’s face in your mind’s eye, you don’t see the nose, then add the ears, a smile, two eyes. Instead, the entire image appears.  The quantum flavor of everyday thinking is unmistakable, because you can choose when to resort to linear cause and effect (e.g., looking at a map to find the shortest route to Boise, Idaho) and when to escape into other modes of knowing reality (e.g., imagining how the Mona Lisa would look with a miniature poodle in her arms).

In simple terms, the extraordinary individuals who exhibit remarkable abilities are gifted with expanded awareness – this is true of a “human computer” but also of creative artists, geniuses, and savants of various kinds.  One key to expanded awareness is seeing how far complementarity can reach, as we’ll now explore.

The most fascinating extension of complementarity has to do with complex systems.  To a physicist, explaining how a pair of electrons behave together in outer space poses a major challenge; explaining how billions of neurons behave together in the brain defies not just the world’s largest computer but possibly any computer one can conceive of.  Yet complex systems, including all life forms, stars, galaxies, and the post-Big Bang cosmos,  are perfect examples of how looking at the whole can help explain the parts and vice versa.

Systems science has validated the adage about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Studying the materials that the great cathedral of Notre Dame is made of –  stone, metals, stained glass, etc. – can give hints about the building and the historical times when it was constructed, but by no means is the great cathedral just the sum of these parts. It was created by conscious beings and reveals a living presence that dead physical objects cannot account for.

No matter how closely one examines the visible parts, there remains the riddle of how complexity arises, what holds it together, and why structures take the shape they do. In complex systems, the whole transcends its discrete parts even when some aspects of organization are hidden, unlike the architects of Notre Dame, who could unfold their blueprints in plain sight.

Another way to express this is by saying that like a cathedral, no complex system can be achieved by a series of simple operations. Carpentry and masonry are basic processes that go into making any building, but there is an infinite variety of buildings, and they depend upon a conception of the whole before you go to work.  Reductionism in science is the methodology of exploring the universe one brick and plank at a time, in discrete units. This cannot be the total story.  To believe that reductionism is all we need misses the whole point.

In fact, when a physicist examines any complementary pairs, he notices that they appear to be paradoxical, since no aspect can apply under exactly the same conditions.  One construct of the pair excludes the other. Today science has reached the same levels of the paradoxical that ancient seers and sages knew from personal experience.  What is more paradoxical than human nature, since we are the most violent and at the same time the most compassionate of living things?

The dichotomy between what science studies (so-called objective reality) and what humans experience (anchored in subjective reality) is not fundamental – it merges into the complementary nature of existence. What we’ve called super complementarity embraces the subject and the object.  The process of observing them makes both work together, even while each excludes the other.  Science works from models out of a desire for closure, and excluding unwanted contradictions, as reductionism does, seems to offer it. But Nature doesn’t.  Return to Notre Dame for a moment. How many ways can you observe it?

You can see it as a colossal solid mass casting a shadow and blocking out whatever stands behind it.

You can see it as a building with no particular significance except to provide shelter.

You can see it religiously as a church, or historically as an example of high Gothic architecture.

But these perspectives are only the beginning. Monet saw cathedrals as shimmering creations of light and color, with no solidity at all. The deeply religious see them as symbols of the marriage between Christ and his worshipers. Medieval pilgrims saw them as repositories of miracles, a space inhabited by God. There is no single way to view Notre Dame, and the versatility of our minds, which can choose any perspective and invent new ones, isn’t accidental. It mirrors Nature’s versatility in devising a wholeness open to every possible angle of observation.

This says that complementarity rules.  There is no fruitful way to use the terms “whole” and “part” without seeing that what matters is how they relate, not what they appear to be.  In complex systems, no relationship exists in the first place without a mind to create the relationship.  You can build a house from field stones gathered after plowing an acre of hard New England ground. Without the concept of “house,” however, the stones aren’t building blocks.

Each concept erects a boundary around itself.  (As a test, think of how many ways you can use an ordinary red brick. If you stay within the normal boundary, you might use a brick to build a wall or as a doorstop or as a weight to press dried flowers. But you can also grind the brick into a powder to tint red paint – suddenly it has lost one boundary and entered another.) Once placed inside a boundary, a thing can be understood, but since every boundary is a mental construct, the only way to reach complete understanding is either:  A. Look at every possible boundary or B. Erase all the boundaries. The second path is much more fruitful.  It opens you to the wonder of Notre Dame, not by adding up every narrow angle that it can be looked at from, but by envisioning the whole.

The beauty of the human mind – again mirroring Nature itself – is that it can grasp wholeness.  We stand in awe before the Grand Canyon, not needing a swarm of geologists to pick away at the rocks as a means of getting there. Geology provides data; only a view of the whole provides awe.  There is a profound mystery in how the mind resolves the paradoxical divisions in Nature.  We’ll explore this uncanny ability in the next post. It will take us to the very heart of reality and the role that consciousness plays in turning a jumble of raw data into the richness of the world we live in.

(To be cont.)

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)