Is a Mind-Element Needed to Interpret Quantum Mechanics? Do Physically Undetermined Choices Enter into the Evolution of the Physical Universe?
Pick at random any TV show about the universe, and the visuals will be dominated by a black void sprinkled with billions of galaxies. Such images give the impression of a vast emptiness foreign to human existence. Our bodies would perish within minutes of stepping into outer space; our minds struggle to grasp cosmic riddles that extend beyond the limits of time and space. But visual images are misleading, because they miss the most crucial element in the universe, an element that suddenly and unexpectedly humanizes it.
This crucial element is mind.
Over a century ago, the quantum revolution opened the way for cosmic mind. The founders of quantum mechanics needed to account for huge differences between their mathematical model of the universe, which is composed of fields of potentialities, and the universe as we perceive it, which is composed of solid objects and events that actually happen. To achieve a reconciliation the founders assumed that reality was composed of two parts, mind and matter, which interacted with each other according to some new laws that they specified. This departure from the prior (classical-physicalist) assumption that mind was a mere side-effect of brain activity was such a startling proposal that it basically split physics in two, with one camp (the physicalists) insisting that matter alone, plus an element of quantum chance, determines every physical property of the universe, and the other camp embracing mind as the key to certain otherwise unexplained mysteries. For several decades now the first, physicalist approach has been ascendant in the minds of many working physicists. But the advance of neuroscience, coupled with the difficulty of accounting in purely mechanical terms for complex behaviors of living organisms, has ignited renewed interest in the possibility that our minds may not be the useless and causally ineffectual appendages that the classical-physicalist dogma has proclaimed them to be.
In what way does the universe display mind-like behavior? Once you admit that this is a legitimate question, the answers are many. Too many, one might say, because there is no consensus about what mind is, and so speculation can run wild. Some thinkers point to the incredible fine-tuning of the various constants that must mesh in order for spacetime, matter, and energy to exist: how did this fine-tuning come about? Other thinkers point to the inability of randomness to account for the emergence of DNA and life on Earth. Still others cut the Gordian knot and declare that the human mind is enough to support the existence of cosmic mind–every person is the cosmic mind writ small (or it could be the other way around: universal mind is the human mind writ large). The basic features of the evolving universe that bring the action of mind into play are choices. For anything to actually “happen” in quantum mechanics, two things have to occur. First, a person has to ask a yes/no question about whether they will have a certain experience or not, then nature has to choose the answer to their question, yes or no. So, there are two choices being made, one is the choice of the question being asked, and the second is the choice of the answer being given.
The mathematical machinery of quantum mechanics is built around these paired choices of questions and answers. The answer to the posed question is specified by the famous quantum random choice. But how is the question chosen? The answer is “by the mind of an observing agent, on the basis of the perceived needs of that organism.” Thus the key choices that play an essential role in the evolution of the universe come from mind.
Before the quantum revolution, billiard balls were often used as examples in physics because they neatly illustrate the laws of motion set down by Newton. Quantum mechanics destroyed this neatness and replaced the table of billiard balls by a table filled with probability distributions of particles. But probability distributions of particles are not the same as real distributions of particles. They are in some sense imaginary. They can be distributions existing in the imaginations or minds of some human beings, or perhaps in an imagined-to-exist cosmic mind. In any case the notion of probability distribution of particles seems to exist in a mind. But in quantum theory the basic “material” aspects of nature are essentially just these probability distributions. Consequently both the mind-like and matter-like aspects of nature seem to be essentially mind-like. Ultimately, the universe cannot be built out of fundamentally disconnected parts. This suggests that the whole of reality may be essentially underpinned by a single, unified mental structure, which we might call cosmic mind.
Thus, by following quantum theory to its logical conclusion, we are forced to bring consciousness into the structure of the universe at a fundamental level. Only by maintaining the fiction that science stands apart from Nature can you leave mind out of the equation.
To quote a few eminent scientists who were able to see beyond this fiction:
There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds …. [I]n truth there is only one mind. – Erwin Schrödinger
Mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always… [as] the source and condition of physical reality. – George Wald
Conscious observers are the minds that make the universe manifest. – John Archibald Wheeler
The beauty of accepting that mind is fundamental in Nature is that it obliterates the powerful visual image of the universe as a cold, empty void. Instead, we come back to a universe that human beings belong in, our rightful home. Nothing in Nature rules out a super-mind at the foundation of the cosmos. What can’t be ruled out becomes possible, and then it’s a matter of offering good answers to as many mysteries as you can. Imagine iron filings dancing around on a sheet of paper. One physicist says that they are dancing on their own, due to a law of Nature that hasn’t quite been worked out. Another physicist says that someone is moving a magnet underneath the paper, and that’s why the iron filings appear to dance. Like it or not, the first physicist would have to admit that the second explanation is possible, even though neither physicist can see the magnet.
In the next post we’ll describe how the cosmic mind, although invisible, sets the cosmos dancing. For now, here’s the formal reasoning that shows why cosmic mind can’t be ruled out.
1. Quantum mechanics, as understood by its founders, shifted the foundations of physical science from what is described in physical terms (i.e., numbers attached to a space-time point) to our human experiences pertaining to such properties. The observer was no longer cut off from the observation.
2. The Copenhagen interpretation of QM is in some sense dualistic, because it contained two parts: one part described in psychological/mental terms and another part described in physical/materialistic terms. In the quantum description of what is happening these two parts are causally entwined: the observer participates in the effects upon the physical world that they are observing.
3. Whereas Newton’s physical universe was an actual “thing,” in QM the physical aspect represents a mere “potentiality” for what can become actual. The universe doesn’t behave like material stuff. There are abrupt jumps, leaps, and changes of state at the heart of quantum behavior. These sudden responses to increments in knowledge make the material aspect more mind-like than matter-like. Hence both the “material” part and the “mental” part are mind-like in character.
4. If the universe is mind-like, what about the tiny invisible elementary particles that occur in QM? Photons, electrons, and the rest aren’t part of our normal experience of the world. Yet at least since the time of the early Greeks, there have been thinkers who can conceive of a world made of persisting elementary particles. If our minds can do this, there is no rational reason why a universe of probabilities of elementary particles can’t exist as an evolving idea in a universal or cosmic mind. If we can conceive something, so presumably can a cosmic mind in which our minds are embedded.
5. What parallels exist between our minds and cosmic mind? We have intentions. Our intentions stem ultimately from our intentions to survive and create. We want to survive in order to express our creative impulse. Given a super mind with vast powers to create worlds of various kinds, which ones would have the propensity to survive? Perhaps those built from a conception of indestructible elementary particles. The elementary particles may not all be indestructible, but they carry conserved quantities such as energy, which should tend to make the universe both survive, and have the capacity to do things.
6. This understanding doesn’t completely explain normal human experience. For example, it doesn’t tell us why grass looks “green” rather than “blue,’ to name two qualia (qualities of experience) that allow us to mentally distinguish differing properties of the physically described everyday world. QM does not answer questions about why we experience qualia in our sensations. But within our quantum-based world view it would not be unnatural for cosmic mind to impose by fiat certain mind-brain connections that would allow our minds to distinguish important differences in the physically described world.
The notion that the world is basically mind-like is far from new in philosophy, but the problem has always been, from Plato to the present day, how to reconcile a mind-like Nature with the prevailing physics. What makes the quantum situation so promising is that the tables have turned.
Basic physics has spectacularly solved the operation of elementary particles, and brings mind into the essential machinery of the reality. The need for reality to be ultimately unified at the basic level forces us to consider that a cosmic mind is the organizing agent behind the observable universe. The outstanding issue is why mind, after being ignored by modern science, turns out to be a necessity that future science cannot do without.
(To be continued.)
Photo credit: io9.com
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including”Super Brain,” co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Join him at The Chopra Foundation Sages and Scientists Symposium 2014. www.choprafoundation.org
Henry Stapp is a theoretical physicist at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, specializing in the conceptual and mathematical foundations of quantum theory, and in particular in the quantum aspects of the relationship between our streams of conscious experience and the physical processes occurring in our brains. Stapp worked closely with Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and John Wheeler, and is author of two books on the quantum mechanical foundation of the connection between mind and matter: “Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics;” and “Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer.” These works lay the foundation for a science-based approach to the question of human free will.