Why the Physical Universe Needs Mental Glue
By Deepak Chopra, MD and Jennifer Nielsen, PhD candidate
Robber barons in the 19th century were so rich that they didn’t have to do things the way ordinary people do. If they wanted to live in a French chateau or an Italian palazzo, for example, they didn’t have to build one from scratch. Instead a chateau or palazzo could be dismantled in Europe, its parts carefully numbered and packed into crates, and then shipped to America to be reassembled on the spot.
If you wanted to ship the universe somewhere else, you could try to do something similar. You’d need four crates labeled time, space, matter, and energy—the basics for taking apart the universe. To save shipping costs, you could try to cut these down to their bare constituents at the quantum level. But when the Fed Ex man shows up, he would scratch his head. “I can’t ship this,” he’d says. “You squeezed everything down, too far. There’s no stuff in these crates.” This is a fanciful summary of the basic quandary created by the quantum revolution of a century ago. When space, time, matter and energy are studied at the very smallest level, they cease to behave as the familiar parts of reality that we think we know.
The everyday world holds together as long as all four ingredients are stable. For example, in a game of billiards, the balls are lumps of matter; the force with which they are hit is energy; the distance between them is a measurement of space: and the interaction when one ball hits another occurs over a duration of time (measured against another duration, usually the hand of a ticking clock). To a physicist, any event we can see with our naked eyes on a regular basis comes down to a Newtonian machine with each piece causing another piece to move in a predictable way. Time, space, matter and energy are pieces that fit together like clockwork. But if you take this to the end, and keep breaking reality down further and further to find the pieces that make the machinery work, you eventually come down to pieces that do not behave like clockwork at all!
What we perceive as space, time, matter, and energy are suddenly interconnected in ways we did not expect, and probabilistic events occur without a clockwork piece causing them to happen. No matter how complex and sophisticated your models, you cannot find hidden variables causing these events to happen. To make this predicament clear, imagine that you and a friend are watching TV when your friend suddenly gets up and leaves. He says nothing, but fifteen minutes later he returns with a pepperoni pizza in his hands. Where did he go, and where did the pizza come from?
You didn’t witness where he went, but you can infer that he went to a pizza place and bought one. However, your explanation doesn’t describe what actually happened, not with any certainty. He could have gone home and microwaved a frozen pizza, or he might have found a pizza by the side of the road. Therefore, you only know what probably happened, using logical inference. Certainty is out of reach unless you had a recorder on your friend. For the space between quantum events, we have an even deeper level of uncertainty. Events on the quantum level happen simply because they have a chance to happen, and when you check on them, all kinds of things can pop up.
Scientists speak of the quantum foam, a field bubbling with activity at a very fine level of nature. What pops out of this foam is identified as space, time, matter, and energy. Does any of this activity take place in what we think of as time and space? How could it? Space and time can’t be the makers of themselves, because that would be circular reasoning. It seems only logical that space and time are made from things that either precede and are beyond the spacetime domain. Somehow our universe pulls the trick of seeming to make itself, even though the starting ingredients are not recognizable as what we think of as everyday reality. Every quantum experiment returns with things we can observe and measure, yet the kitchen where such things are baked—if there is a kitchen—is totally inaccessible and unhackable.
Not only can we not measure this kitchen or go there, we cannot even conceive of such a state, because as you strip away time, there is no time to think. As you strip away space, there’s no place for your brain to exist. Strip away matter, and
brain cells cannot exist in the first place, and in the absence of energy, no work can be done and nothing can interact. Unlike a French chateau or an Italian palazzo, once you break the universe down and number the parts, reassembling it is beyond the reach of the human mind.
Physics gets around this difficulty through mathematics, which is the last lifeline to reality as we know it. As long as mathematical formulas predict how time, space, matter, and energy behave, the models of quantum mechanics and general relativity work, and we can verify this using empiricism (the measured data which tells us what things are doing). This is the underlying assumption of the scientific method. Yet empirically our measurements and our models now are telling us that we cannot model every aspect of reality, in part because reality is radically ambiguous. Every solid thing in the universe can be broken down into quanta, and every quantum possesses a dual nature. Quantum particles can behave like a thing, or like a wave. How do waves, which are totally invisible and without precise location, turn into a bicycle or a bicycle rider, which is visible and has a specific location?
The only way to get there is very abstract. A physicist might apply technical jargon, saying that “quantum coherence—the way quantum states maintain themselves intact—can be used to study how local, causal reactions can arise from the nonlocal and acausal or atemporal aspects of quantum systems.” In everyday language, imagine a vast still pond—the quantum field. Two children come along and start throwing rocks into the water, which sets up wave actions. As these waves cross each other’s paths, they set up patterns, either creating bigger waves (positive interference) or canceling each other out (negative interference). There you have the visible universe. As the quantum wave functions interact with one another, what physicists call “decoherence” occurs. The big and solid everyday stuff we know that operates normally in space and time is created by the interference of the phases of many, many quantum forms.
There are huge complexities involved in matching such abstract concepts to reality, because it’s like breaking Mozart’s music down into vibrations, or using the mathematics of strings and knots to model the intricate rug on a Navajo loom.
Without a doubt, you can use math to model the vibration violin and piano strings, or to model the twists and turns of hand-knotted yarn. But saying that a vibrating string explains how music is composed, or that knot theory explains the reality of the rug, is nonsensical. Music needs vibration, but it also needs a human mind to create it. Without the concept of music in our mind, there is no music. Without a weaver, knots of thread suggest no pattern. This undercuts reductionist thinking in drastic ways. If there is no music without Mozart and no rug without a weaver, is this also true of the universe itself? Without us to conceive it, is the universe a universe at all?
Some great physicists didn’t consider this a preposterous conjecture. In no uncertain terms the great Werner Heisenberg declared, “The atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” He went on, “Only the experiment of an observer forces the atom to indicate a position, a color and a quantity of heat. All the qualities of the atom are derived–it has no immediate and direct physical properties at all.”
Few scientists today would put it so strongly, but the reality is that when researchers take quantum measurements in a quantum information lab, they select from the multitude of aspects nature manifests and narrowly choose those aspects they intend to observe. If they choose to measure whether a quantum object is “spin up” or “spin down,” nature will always give spin results and not velocity or location. The qualities we are not observing become indeterminate and unpredictable while we measure spin. Reality is no longer independent of the observer; there is a dance between them. The quantum universe exhibits the kinds of behavior we ask of it, which was precisely Heisenberg’s point. In nature itself there is no sound, brightness, color, or texture “out there.” These are constructs that arise because the human mind generates them.
There’s an immense rift between those who see this as a credible argument and those who think it is nonsense, believing that the universe “out there” is self-existent and self-maintaining without our help. Before you hop on to one bandwagon or the other, stand back for a moment. Imagine that you are the first
human being ever to set eyes on a horse. What is such a creature good for? Potentially you can ride it, load it down as a pack animal, eat it, race it, breed it and sell the offspring, kill it for sport, tan its hide into leather, paint its picture, or write stories about it. A horse has none of these properties, and no potential for them, until you the human observer invent them. If you were a cow instead and were the first cow to see a horse, you wouldn’t think of any such properties because riding horses, eating them, killing them for sport, etc. are inconceivable to a cow mind.
Compared to all the things one can imagine about a horse, there are many more we can imagine about nature as a whole—too many. Therefore, we simplify things to arrive at manageable models, with boundary conditions that set limits on what we look at for a single time. This means leaving a lot of reality on the table.
At this point in human evolution we can see ourselves as model-makers with the freedom to create new ones all the time. We don’t even need a logical reason to switch gears. Our choices might be totally arbitrary, or we might be influenced by people whom we believe understand things better than we do. By any measure, however, the participation of human beings is critical to what we call reality. The glue of reality as we know it is conceptual. At bottom, even time, space, matter, and energy are concepts. Without the human mind to invent such concepts, nature would simply be a single thing interacting with itself, unfettered by boundaries and labels. To say this isn’t to devalue science, which is our touchstone for reality in the modern world. Yet in the future science is likely to become much more self-aware, and by turning to the observer’s creative role–dance with the universe as co-creators–we may wind up being infinitely more powerful than we ever imagined ourselves to be.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com
Jennifer Nielsen is a PhD student studying physics and quantum information at the University of Kansas and is adjunct professor of mathematics at Haskell Indian Nations University. She graduated summa cum laude with a BS in physics from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is the recipient of a Foundational Questions Institute (FQXI) award for her paper “Is Bit It?” and is a recipient of the Chambliss Award for Research in Astrophysics. You can follow her @StarTiger on Twitter or follow at http://www.facebook.com/JennyLN