From Quanta to Qualia: The Mystery of Reality (Part 4)
A breakthrough has occurred in explaining our universe that hasn’t yet become mainstream. This is the concept of a living cosmos that did not need to evolve to produce life on Earth. Rather, all the elements characteristic of life were already present. They didn’t become apparent until human beings developed self-aware minds. Humans have assumed that the constituents of life did not exist until some time in the history of our planet, which arbitrarily gave birth to life.
An agreed upon theory of a living universe hasn’t been formulated yet. That’s what we’ve started to do in this series of posts. However, as you explore the scientific literature in which speculative thinkers muse on the links that bind reality at every level, common patterns emerge. One that links different aspects of the cosmos to everyday life is what we term a trinity: Quarks, Quanta, and Qualia. It maps out a progression from the physical to the mental.
The quantum revealed that the appearance of a solid, stable physical universe was not fundamental; at the finest level, creation is based upon invisible packets of energy, and a revolutionary theory, quantum mechanics, made it possible to better understand three out of the four fundamental forces in Nature with astonishing precision (the fourth being gravity, which is still elusive).
Quanta formed the bridge between what used to be thought of as completely different and opposite aspects of the universe, namely matter and energy. Subatomic particles exist at the transition between the vacuum state, and invisible domain of infinite potential, and visible creation. Quanta are themselves energy and matter. Quarks eventually emerged from quantum field theory (the successor to the original quantum theory) as the building blocks of the nucleus of the atom, what constitute matter itself. Even though quarks are quanta, for our purposes we can consider them as being more “solid”, while still acting as messengers of the fundamental forces.
To date, quanta and quarks define the outlines of how the universe emerged, although there are other theories, such as General Relativity, needed to complete the picture. For a scientist working in the scheme of “physicalism,” which holds that all phenomena can be explained through the interactions of matter and energy, the future consists of refining and unifying the findings of quantum physics.
The Three-in-One State
Matter and energy aren’t enough to explain the universe. We propose that a third element must be added – Qualia – before anything approaching a unified description of reality will ever be possible. Efforts to devise the so-called Theory of Everything will come up woefully short if the third part of the trinity, consciousness, is left out. While the old quantum theory opened the door to consciousness, it is now time to make better sense of the unified whole, and consciousness does that.
Physicalists take consciousness as a given. They have no explanation for the emergence of mind; the transformation of atoms and molecules into mental events – feelings, sensations, wishes, dreams, scientific theories – goes unexplained. Mental events can be unified as Qualia, a term for all subjective perception. It is undeniable that we know the universe through subjective experience. Science itself is a subjective experience, despite the attempt to isolate and reduce objective facts and expel subjectivity.
It’s time to realize that subjectivity is the elephant in the room. It must be taken into account. Setting aside any other argument, the most basic reason for Qualia science is that, in the words of the late physicist John Wheeler, we live in a participatory universe. What does our participation consist of? Three things: observer, observed, and the process of observation. Quantum theory has wrestled with the latter two for a century, ever since it became invalid to treat waves and particles as fixed things “out there,” apart from the observer effect. The observer changes what he observes. That’s been undeniable in quantum mechanics for many decades. But the observer effect is often brushed aside as a minor glitch or as a factor that can be worked around.
We propose a three-in-one model that unites observer, observed, and process of observation. Their unity exists naturally, in our own experience. Hard as it is for physicalists to accept, there is no sunset, cloud, mountain, electron, or galaxy independent of a unified state that must include an observer and the process of observation. The total inadmissibility of this idea is a mark of how necessary it is. Science doesn’t describe reality (even Stephen Hawking has attested to this), it describes phenomena that fit various theories. It’s the map, not the territory.
The territory is reality, which is one and only, an undivided wholeness. What humans experience constitutes reality, since by definition whatever we can’t experience is inconceivable. We aren’t referring only to the five senses. As Peter Wilberg, one of the most astute and gifted qualia theorists, has explained, we don’t see because we have eyes. Eyes are physical organs that evolved to serve the mind’s desire to see. Mind comes first. It reaches out to experience reality through qualia, which embrace the five senses along with sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts in the mind.
As alien as it sounds to put mind first, one’s sense of strangeness reflects our habitual view of things. As long as materialism dominates, physicalists will always agree that the eye precedes sight, the brain the mind, and so on. It’s in the nature of new theories, when they are truly revolutionary, to overturn the existing paradigm. In his groundbreaking writing on perception, cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman has offered a model of perception that places the individual mind, which he calls a “conscious agent,” at the center of the reality. That is, he begins with experience as the measure of what exists. Wilberg takes perception even further, asserting that when we feel that something around us reflects a certain mood (the optimism of dawn, the cheerfulness of spring, the gloom of a dark, low-hanging clouds), it isn’t possible to claim that the mood belongs only to the observer or that it is separate from the thing being observed. The founders of quantum theory intuitively felt the same way, as attested by Schrödinger, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Pauli. Later on, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann went even further – they claimed that consciousness was necessary to resolve the fundamental quantum measurement problem (i.e., the problem of how to account for the way that an observer effects what he observes.)
When qualia are fully understood, reality is three-in-one. The progression of quarks-quanta-qualia reflects the history of science. Discoveries unfolded in a line from the more inert and physical to the more subjective. But this should be reversed to qualia-quanta-quarks, which recognizes the undeniable fusion of observer-observed-process of observation. This reversal maps the natural way in which the universe becomes aware.
For anyone who can loosen their loyalties to the current scientific paradigm, the three-in-one model of nature isn’t opposed to current science; it’s more expanded and inclusive. Therefore, we consider it the natural next step. For example, in Nature it is self-evident that there is creation and destruction. The new cannot come about unless the old gives way. But creation and destruction are not isolated opposites randomly crashing into each other. They are connected. Through their connection, an emerging new thing takes into account information from the old thing. You can see this as you read a sentence. As one word passes out of sight and a new one appears, there is a stream of connection, known as meaning. The first word looks to the second word, and the second looks back at the first. “The-black-bear-is-climbing-a-tree. “ “The” tells you that a noun is coming. “Black tells you that the noun hasn’t arrived yet, but since “the” is still in mind, you await the noun, which arrives with “bear” and completes the phrase.
The point isn’t that one word has to follow another in a linear sentence. The point is that the appearance of new words, following on the disappearance of old words, builds a self-organized structure. From this simple example we see how the human brain is organized as an evolving organ. It operates as a feedback loop that integrates past, present, and future experiences. They form a dynamic process that keeps consuming itself and expanding into new life. This process occurs physically in the brain structures studied by neuroscientists. But without a mind to organize everything, the brain has no reason or ability to evolve. The passage of time is irrelevant; the same blue-green algae that emerged at the beginning of life have remained unchanged for billions of years.
Yet even one-celled organisms respond to the world by breathing, eating, dividing, heading for the light, and so on. Those responses were the first links in the feedback loop that eventually gave rise to the physical brain. Every experience is qualia, including the experience of blue-green algae. Thus we have a common link that can unify all phenomena that the mind can conceive of. Qualia medicine could one day explain spontaneous remission of cancer, for example. Cancer is marked by numerous changes at the genetic level, including complex changes in the “junk DNA” (formally known as “non-coding DNA”) that comprises over 96% of the human genome. Genes respond to the environment around them, which includes all the incoming information that passes from the bloodstream through the cell membrane. That information is controlled by the brain, and the brain is the processing center for all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images – qualia. The feedback loop closes in a dynamic, ever-changing circle that includes qualia at every level. Medical science has taken thirty years to accept the validity of the mind-body connection. Once it takes the next step into qualia, the difference between disease and wellness can be understood with the inclusion of personal experience. Present mind-body phenomena like the placebo effect, or the increased risk of illness caused by depression, will expand. Instead of being peripheral to “real” medicine (i.e., drugs and surgery), the mind-body connection will be central to prevention and wellness.
We’ve presented here only a sketch of the possibilities. A living universe must be considered as a strong possibility. It already is among far-seeing scientists. The library of books about a self-organizing cosmos is growing. Consciousness is no longer a taboo subject at scientific conferences. What’s lacking is a unifying model for the countless things that remain unexplained by physicalism. It may sound incredible that the entire universe is the product of mind, whether we are speaking metaphorically as Einstein did (“I want to know the mind of God’ everything else is just details”) or literally, as qualia theory does. But science proceeds by accepting the simplest hypothesis that fits what needs to be explained. As a three-in-one state, reality can be explained far more simply, we claim, than using random chance and bouncing particles to explain the emergence of the mind’s richness, creativity, and intelligence.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 65 books with numerous 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)
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)
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)