Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Quantum Physicists, Consciousness, God


With the introduction of relativity theory and quantum mechanics Newton’s mechanical view of the universe came to an end. Instead of the classical deterministic view of existence now developed an image of a universe that exists as a set of possible outcomes, a probability distribution. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot know both the exact position of a particle and its momentum at the same time. This led to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics which states that an object acts as both a wave and a particle in a set of probability waves. The act of measurement by an observer causes the “collapse” of a set of possibilities into one randomly chosen one which becomes physical “reality.”

The question of what constitutes an observer has plagued quantum mechanics from the beginning. Schrödinger' cat experiment in which a cat in a box can be both alive and dead at the same time (a quantum superposition) until an observer opens the box was complicated by the realization that the observer may also be in a quantum superposition and would require yet another observer and so on ad infinitum. If the entire universe is a quantum universe then there needs to be an ultimate consciousness outside of the universe to bring it into existence.


Bruce Rosenblum is Professor Emeritus of Physics and former Chair of the Physics Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  He is coauthor of Quantum Enigma, Physics Encounters Consciousness (Oxford University Press, 2006). In an interview (1), he discusses what constitutes an “observation.”

“If a photon encounters an atom, does the atom observe the photon? No. We can prove that the atom and the photon together do one thing and simultaneously do not do it. They form a ‘superposition’ state. The atom has not observed the photon. Quantum mechanics, strictly speaking, says that if a measurement device, such as a piece of photographic film, is isolated from the rest of the world, then, no matter how big it is, as long as it’s isolated in space and unobserved, the device does not observe.”

He goes on to discuss Von Neumann, who, in 1932, showed that if an atom interacts with a machine (a Geiger counter), the Geiger counter goes into a superposition state with the atom so that the Geiger counter has both observed and not observed the atom, as long as they both remain isolated. If another instrument measures the Geiger counter, and it, too, remains isolated, it will also be included in the superposition state. Only when this quantum superposition is observed by consciousness does the superposition “collapse” and we observe the single, actual reality.

Rosenblum quotes Pascual Jordan, a physicist who was involved in founding quantum theory: “Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it. We compel [the particle] to assume a definite position.”

There is another interpretation of the quantum paradox and that is the Many-worlds interpretation. In this view, once the conscious decision is made by the observer, there is no “collapse” but a bifurcation into two worlds in which Schrodinger’s cat is alive in one and dead in the other. In this formulation, all possible choices that a conscious mind makes exist in an alternate, parallel universe. All possibilities that can happen do happen which means that free will does not exist, since all possible choices are acted upon in some universe.

Andrei Linde, Professor of Physics at Stanford University, brings up another issue regarding measurement. The Wheeler–DeWitt equation, which is the Schrodinger equation for the wave function of the entire universe, does not depend on time. This means that the universe does not change in time, it is immortal, and it is dead. (2) But we know that from a classical point of view the universe has evolved over 13.7 billion years since the big bang. The problem is that one cannot talk about the universe evolving because there is no one outside of the universe to observe its evolution and there is no external clock. What we can ask is why does a person who is inside the universe observe the universe to be evolving in a certain way? For that, Linde explains, one needs to divide up the universe into two, a observer with his clock and the rest of the universe. Now it can be shown that the rest of the universe does depend on the time of the observer’s clock. Any other person with a clock and living inside the quantum state of the universe will also observe the same evolution of the universe and thus both measurements would agree. Linde concludes: “Without introducing an observer, we have a dead universe, which does not evolve in time.”

Here are some quotes to bring us to some understanding of where many physicists are today with respect to consciousness and reality:

The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.” (3)  


Johns Hopkins physics professor Dr. R.C. Henry (4) says that “the universe is immaterial - mental and spiritual.” In the same article, he quotes Cambridge physicist Sir James Jeans as saying, “The stream of knowledge is heading toward a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter . . . we ought rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.

British astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington (5) said that “physics is the study of the structure of consciousness.  The ‘stuff’ of the world is mindstuff.”  In the same article Max Planck, the “father” of quantum physics, is quoted as having stated, “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear-headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as the result of my research about the atoms, this much: There is no matter as such!  All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together … We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind.  This Mind is the matrix of all matter.


Fred Alan Wolf, former professor of Physics at San Diego University and author of Taking the Quantum Leap and several other bestsellers, said in a 2008 interview (6): “there seems to be the presence of something called Mind, or something outside of the physical world, which seems to be needed or present in order to explain, completely, the observations of reality that we have been able to carry out up to now. And, there seems to be no way to get out of that.”

Though physicists are not yet ready to declare that they have found God, at least not the God of the Bible, many are aware of parallels in the imagery used in the Bible and in certain Eastern religions with the quantum world models. It is clear we have more to learn before we announce the meeting of the religious and scientific minds, but the direction of science is becoming clearer. 

Perhaps we should end with the wise words of Albert Einstein:

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”


3.     Physicist Bernard d’Espagnat, Scientific American, 1979
4.     Henry, R. C. Nature 436, 29, 2005