In the 1920s and 1930s there was a long-running debate between two friendly adversaries: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Bohr defended quantum theory, which denied the existence of a physically real world until it was observed: the observation created this real world. This bizarre result was explained by something called the Copenhagen interpretation, with which Bohr (a Danish physicist) was particularly identified. It claimed that particles on the microscopic level lacked reality. In strict theory, this lack of reality extended also to ordinary objects in the physical world, but for all practical purposes, these objects could be considered real and obeyed the laws of classical physics.
This interpretation was not good enough for Einstein. For him, the world of nature had to make sense. All material objects, whether large or microscopically small, had to be real in themselves, which meant that they had some inherent, real properties which were not the result of observation. Man and his senses, his observation and his consciousness were quite separate from nature and her laws and her history. Objects in nature were also inherently independent and separate from one another, although they could affect other bodies through physical forces, such as gravity. All such physical effects from one body to another had an inherent limit: the speed of light.
Both pre-existing real properties (later known as ‘hidden variables’) and their separateness from other bodies were conditions denied by quantum theory, which to Einstein meant that that theory was incomplete. Neither he nor Bohr ever asserted that quantum theory was incorrect; they never had any disagreements over the results of actual experiments using quantum calculations. Their disagreement was entirely over the interpretation of these results. Their dispute was fundamentally philosophical. Its importance was recognized only later and only by a minority of working physicists. Quantum theory and quantum mechanics were the most successful system ever developed by physics. All its predictions were confirmed by experiments and an avalanche of practical applications followed, in which quantum calculations were essential. Today, about a third of the economy of the United States depends on products applying quantum theory. Thus, only a few physicists were diverted from working on all these practical applications, to worry about philosophical oddities involving such marginal subjects as consciousness and reality.
This conflict, which was basically about the reality of the world, went on for years, with Einstein making objections to quantum theory’s results and Bohr successfully defending them. However, in 1935, Einstein and two young colleagues, Boris Podolski and Nathan Rosen, produced a paper (which became known as the EPR document) which proposed a thought experiment which the authors thought would definitely prove their basic assumptions, namely that there were real properties of material objects that pre-existed their observation and that objects were separate from other objects. The details of this experiment and Bohr’s reply can be found elsewhere (Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenbloom and Fred Kuttner provides an excellent account). What is important here is how all this played out. As usual, Bohr did not doubt the correctness of the experiment proposed. He questioned the assumptions behind it and Einstein found this criticism unsatisfactory. The dispute at this point was overtaken by events in the world which diverted everyone’s attention away from philosophical disputes and towards severely practical matters, such as which side in World War II was going to get the atom bomb first.
Both Einstein and Bohr died before an Irish physicist, named John Bell, revived the controversy in the 1960s. In a stunning paper, he suggested a method whereby this philosophical dispute could be tested and resolved by means of a perfectly scientific experiment. Again, Bell died before he himself could follow this up, so that it was not until the 1970s that an actual experiment was devised to test Bell’s theoretical work. The details may be found in the book already mentioned, but the outcome was a total victory for quantum theory. The assumption by Einstein, that objects in nature are independent and separate from one another, was denied. The first experiment was then repeated with more sophisticated equipment and the amount by which Einstein’s assumption was denied agreed exactly with quantum predictions. Today, there can be no doubt that quantum theory has shown conclusively that any description of the world, now or in future, must not include Einstein’s assumed separation between material objects (of any size). This also means that all such objects are entangled or intertwined and their influence on one another is not limited by the speed of light. Without this inherent separation between objects, what happens to one in any place can instantaneously affect what happens to another (however far away) without any physical force connecting the two events. It is as though nature in its entirety were a single entity, where an action anywhere instantaneously affects it everywhere. When they reached this result in their book, Rosenbloom and Kuttner illustrated the cosmic connectedness of all things by quoting the poetic vision of a nineteenth century Englishman, Francis Thompson: “….. thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.”
Quantum theory has proved that this entanglement holds true for all physical objects on an inorganic level. A similar effect has been noted by scientists working on our living environment. They have found that what happens or what is done to this environment anywhere in the world can essentially affect it everywhere. A volcano erupts near Indonesia and the weather of the entire planet is affected for years. Or, in the other direction, innumerable households all over the world discard their plastic bottles and similar non-degradable items and an incredible amount of this rubbish ends up in an area of the Pacific Ocean, which seems to have become a global garbage dump. The Brazilian rain forests affect the weather patterns of the entire planet, and so on. It is as though the entire living mantle of this planet, which makes it so unique, behaves like a single entity, even, because life is involved, like a single sentient being. Some have gone so far as to give this entity a name: Gaia or Gaea, after the Greek goddess of the earth.
Poetry and Greek goddesses are strange subjects in a discussion about science. But the fact that Einstein’s ‘sensible’ world of an independently existing nature turned out to be wrong and that the bizarre and counter-intuitive explanations of quantum theory turned out to be right is also strange. In the line of argument that has been followed in this article, the fact that both quantum physics and biology have come to see a unifying connectedness in the respective phenomena they are investigating is the important conclusion. This includes man, even in physics. Quantum theory sees man not only as closely intermeshed with other natural phenomena, but as participating in their existence. As John Wheeler, a quantum cosmologist put it: “Useful as it is under everyday circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld. There is a strange sense in which this is a ‘participatory universe’.” This conclusion that there is an essential unity, even a sentient entity, out there in nature is reminiscent of the thinking of some eminent physicists in the last century whose ideas, unfortunately, were swept aside (like much else at the time) by the overpowering concentration of effort to produce the atom bomb. Quantum thinking and its consequences suggest having another look at these ideas.
The concept of consciousness or being, as a factor in physics, is not just another weird speculation mentioned in books about quantum theories, like the one already referred to by Rosenbloom and Kuttner. This particular line of reasoning has been around for some time. In the 1920s and 1930s, perfectly serious thinkers like Sir Arthur Eddington (one of the few at the time to understand relativity and a great popularizer of Einstein) had this to say: “The stuff of the world is mind stuff”. And this: “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact scientist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of a mental character”. Sir James Jeans was another well-known physicist of that time who had similar thoughts: “……the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.” In answer to a question, he also said on another occasion that he inclined to the view that consciousness was primary and that matter derived out of consciousness and not consciousness out of physical matter.
Matter is normally considered to be the primal substance in physics, out of which everything else, like life, feeling and consciousness then evolved, even though the origin of matter, that ultimate, elementary, irreducible particle has never been found in nature. So what justification is there to say that mind or consciousness is the primal substance and that matter derives out of this? In the argument followed here, it will be seen that this is the pivotal idea to understanding the reality concepts in quantum theory. This theory allows for only one reality, that of the physical world of nature. Plato would have called it subjective reality; the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum phenomena says that this kind of reality is only apparent not real, when it comes to the ordinary events and phenomena of the physical world. For all practical purposes, such objects obey the laws of classical physics, but in strict quantum theory, both particles on the microscopic level and these larger objects are not real. Heisenberg, one of the titans of twentieth century physics and a contemporary of both Einstein and Niels Bohr, stated these quantum conclusions as follows: “In the experiments about atomic events we have to do with things and facts, with phenomena that are just as real as any phenomena in daily life. But the elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than of things or facts.”
Einstein’s sensible world, it will be remembered, had to consist of objects that were inherently separate from others and also had to contain physical properties that were real. For him, nature was quite separate from man and had an independent history. In this independent form, nature stretched back into the remotest eras of the world, long before man made his appearance on it. Its reality, therefore, was of the objective kind, as it did not depend on man or his senses or his observation or his consciousness. Einstein’s views in this regard went back all the way to Galileo who had first posited this total independence of nature from man. Galileo had even given matter and motion, his “primary qualities” or properties of nature, the status of objective reality. Furthermore, all laws of nature were “written in the mathematical language”, according to Galileo, so that a theory, such as Newton’s theory of gravity for instance, expressed in mathematical form, if confirmed by experimental proof, would cease being a theory and became a fact, a revealed secret of this independently real nature. Human theories could thus be solidified into facts by this confirmation from the realm of an outside, objectively real nature. As we saw earlier, this entire body of assumptions was denied when quantum theory was shown to be right and Einstein wrong. That meant that there was no objective reality in the background, to confirm and anchor man’s theories about the universe. Quantum theory recognized only the subjective reality of nature and that only ‘for all practical purposes’ when it came to the large objects of classical physics. In theory, there was no independent reality at all for any physical object, large of small. These conclusions made Einstein, John Bell and others surmise that quantum theory, while totally correct and deservedly successful, was incomplete.
It will now be seen that matter as the primal substance of the world, does not fit into these conclusions of quantum theory, where matter has “in itself” no reality. It is hardly possible for an unreal matter to generate out of itself all life forms found on this planet, including man. It is difficult enough to think of life (especially the higher forms) evolving our of a ‘real’ and independent matter, with only natural sources of energy, like cosmic rays and lightning, available to effect these fundamental changes from inorganic to organic on the molecular and atomic levels. As quantum theory, confirmed by experimental proof, has now denied the separate existence of all natural phenomena, matter must be considered derivative not primal.
Also, because there is no longer any confirmation of theories from an outside source of independent, objective reality, theories must remain merely theories, no matter how often they are confirmed by experimental proofs. They must remain forever open-ended, ready to be revised or abandoned if a better theory, argued with better logic, appears. The fact that objective reality has been so totally abandoned by modern physics can be traced back ultimately to Galileo and specifically to a basic mistake he made in ascribing objective reality to matter and motion. He thought this was justified because to him, matter and motion would still be there if you removed the human senses and the human presence, ignoring the fact that the human sense of sight was still involved. As Galileo knew very well, objective reality was defined by Plato as a property purely of the divine realm, not of the lowly realm of nature, but he wanted to substitute nature for God in science, without sacrificing the concept of an independent reality. The world of nature, which Galileo felt was independently real, could thus give confirmation to man’s theories if you dealt only with matter and motion, so that these theories would then cease to be mere theories and become facts.
The thread of argument can now return to Eddington and Jeans. For them, the entire world of physical nature is derivative. Its origin is ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ and, of course, they do not refer here to the human mind or to any human consciousness. The non-material realm of objective reality is the realm of divinity, of the Creator of the universe. It is also the realm of all archetypes or origins (in Plato’s terms the ‘potential forms’) of everything in nature. The ‘actual forms’ that we perceive are thus not independent realities but only appearances or representations of the ‘potential forms’ which contain all the possibilities of creation, not just the particular appearance we are familiar with. This appearance represents the limitations which our world of merely three spatial dimensions and one time dimension imposes on the limitless possibilities of the potential form. However, it should not be thought that the word ‘appearance’ implies a lack of solidity or substance. The objects of the physical world appear as solid as our senses (and our own bodies) make them, although we know now that the amount of actual matter in an atom is tiny. If only matter were involved, we would probably pass right through the car that is about to crash into us. What makes the impact are the nuclear forces, not matter. The concept of physical objects as appearances only, without an independent reality, is very similar to the quantum concept of physical objects being real only for all practical purposes. The real divergence between quantum theory and the ideas of Eddington and Jeans appears when the other reality, the objective reality, is brought into the discussion. In quantum theory, this other reality does not exist; in fact no independent reality exists at all. For Eddington and Jeans on the other hand, there is another reality: the mind or the consciousness of the Creator. This exists as the reality that is needed to explain the physical world so that it makes sense. It is thus truly objective, in the sense that Plato specified. In this connection, what Heisenberg said about the reality of particles bears another look. He said that these particles were potentialities. Of course they would not be real in any sense that quantum theory could accept, but were potentialities nothing at all? Perhaps his use of the word ‘potentialities’ and the Platonic ‘potential forms’ might hide more than a semantic similarity! In any case, this absence of reality of particles (the smallest components of matter that we can discover) indicates that matter must have arisen out of nothing, according to quantum thinking. While the appearance of matter ex nihilo has become quite a popular speculation in some circles, it does present a number of serious philosophical and theoretical problems. In fact anything which can be imagined as happening before the big bang presents grave difficulties. Stephen Hawking even says that, because time itself began at the big bang, anything before that moment cannot be a part of any scientific theory. All these points support the idea that quantum theory is incomplete. It recognizes that subjective reality is too dependent on the human being to stand on its own: when you really look at it, it does not explain the existence of particles, so it is unreal on that level. It is only useful when dealing with the natural phenomena of our world as though they were real, ‘for all practical purposes.’ During the era of Newton, our science was backed by the solid reality of nature. That has now disappeared and, in quantum theory, nothing has taken its place.
The advantages of a realm of non-material objective reality, on the other hand, are many. This reality would not serve, as falsely imagined by Galileo, to validate any human theory, however abstract and far removed from our senses and however compelling the experimental or observational proof of such a theory might be. Such validation would always be subject to change, as theories change, and for Plato, the only real and true knowledge of nature, which resided in that upper realm, was not subject to change. Such knowledge was the ultimate and final explanation of nature, but that meant it was all beyond human speculation. On our human level of theory and speculation, however, especially in the area of abstract mathematics, this concept of dual realities, the subjective and the objective, would not interfere in any way with current trends of thought. At present (and for the last forty years or so) theory and speculation in physics has far outrun the ability of physical proof to keep up. What used to be called string theory (now M-theory) is a good example. The theory is beautiful, elegant and simple in its mathematics but, so far, any proof of it is lacking. The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva has not yet even managed to confirm the existence of the Higgs particle, a success confidently predicted for its very earliest experiments after it reached full power. During these last forty years, the increase in our knowledge has been very considerable but our understanding of it, our explanations, have fallen behind. Explanations of theories depend on their connection to our world, that is to say on experimental proof. What the concept of objective reality adds to quantum theory is an explanation of the origin of matter (and therefore of the universe) that does not rely on physical proof because this origin is not physical – and therefore not subject to change,
The likelihood of modern physics actually changing course and following the course indicated by Eddington and Jeans is remote indeed. But perhaps that possibility cannot be discounted entirely. Such a rebirth of physics, should it ever occur, would be stunning indeed. If it were agreed that the ‘substratum of everything’ is of a mental character’, the concept of being would replace the very inorganic nature of physics. It would have one unplanned result: it would bridge the rift between science and faith, first opened up by Galileo when he removed God from science. Where Eddington and Jeans talk about the mind and the consciousness of the Creator, a religious thinker would see that, in his language, it is spirit that is behind matter as its origin, it is spirit that is the substratum of being. Furthermore, this argument would all originate from the side of physics, without in any way invoking Darwin or the theory of evolution!
Instead of the brutal exploitation of our environment from without, in search of cheap, polluting, non-renewable energy resources, for example, such a new physics might actually search for ways to work from within nature, to try to find ways to use the life-giving and regenerative forces of nature to balance against the inevitable pollution and environmental degradation inherent in the human presence and thus stop the present net destruction of nature, which is accelerating in a most alarming manner.
Physics can, of course, continue to pursue the many interesting and compelling theories it is presently engaged in. It can continue to press for funding to send a person to Mars, or to build even bigger and better particle accelerators. Not long ago, perfectly serious physicists suggested spending vast resources to perfect the construction of a spaceship, in which a remnant of humanity might escape our world, after its total destruction by wars or exhaustion of all resources, and roam the universe in search of another and more pristine world where, presumably, we might continue our folly for a few more generations.
It is to be hoped that the choices physics makes in the future will benefit humanity. Otherwise, it might find itself, together with the rest of us, watching the final and irreversible destruction of our fragile environment.