"When I forget my ways, I am in The Way"

Philosophical and experiential notes on Nothingness, with supporting insights from martial arts, quantum physics and Taoism


18 September 2015

NOTHINGNESS, CONSCIOUSNESS AND QUANTUM THEORY

The so-called Nothingness can be compared to quantum's so-called Field. This comparison can begin by broaching the topic of consciousness.

What is consciousness? This is not an easy thing to define.

David Chalmers is an Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist. He is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Consciousness at the Australian National University and Professor of Philosophy at New York University. He is also a Fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [Source: Wikipedia]

Chalmers succinctly stated,
"There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain."


For something so difficult to explain, we can find no shortage of attempts to convince us it is ridiculously simple. Even scientists in TED talks sometimes clumsily brush consciousness off as childishly simple, an automatic human response that's easily explained by visual puzzles and lab-measured psychological tests. Some Buddhists take detachment to the troubling point of suggesting that the mind already knows everything, so why trouble yourself with annoying and troublesome conjecture.

Vague generalities are used in a manner that suggests some type of grand understanding. For someone to simply respond that consciousness is the 'life force', while perhaps true, may also be a bit naive when it comes down to studying and explaining the mechanics of how things work.

Naiveness and dismissiveness can hurt us. In the current culture of mysticism, for example, hot topics include words like connectedness, duality, oneness, nothingness, and 'in the moment'. In my experience, these are words and phrases that have little practical use to most of us.

What do these soaring concepts actually mean when it comes to understanding nature, ourselves and our personal daily experience of life? Unfortunately, words and phrases like these can have all the appearance of being buzzwords and sometimes not much more.

It can be really annoying then, when in the context of a buzzword, such terms are used in conversation and writing, particularly when they are not qualified. And even more particularly when we are unable to apply them in a meaningful, sensible context. With enough widespread repetition, shallow definitions become sufficient definitions.

A buzzword can be a sand trap. It can make us nod our heads in collaboration with something whose context neither we nor the speaker sufficiently understand. And that's not smart.

A word like consciousness can have other muted pitfalls. For example, there are the times when a speaker behaves as if they possess some kind of special knowledge of what a word like consciousness 'really' means, as though they have an understanding that few others possess - when in fact they don't. When this form of degeneration of sound thinking and analysis occurs, we've surrendered intelligent reasoning to the local Spiritual Smugness Society.

Not surprisingly, there is a similarity that occurs in quantum physics, although in a radically different way. Because at what some consider to be the forefront of quantum physics research, there lies a deeply disturbing influence: that pesky word, consciousness.

While the scientific subject of consciousness itself evokes a scientific challenge perhaps unequalled, it also evokes a shocking challenge to reasoning itself. It pushes reasonable men and women of science into denial.

In their book "QUANTUM ENIGMA: Physics Encounters Consciousness,"
Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttnet elaborate at length:

"Niels Bohr, a founder of quantum theory, warned that unless you’re shocked by quantum mechanics, you have not understood it."

Or as renowned physicist John Bell said, "I saw the impossible done."

What is it that has so rocked our seemingly rational and explicable understandings of the Laws of Nature? Nothing less than the totally incomprehensible. Of course, being human we find the incomprehensible to be terribly uncomfortable. So we tend to look for shortcuts, or theories we can promote as authoritative or conclusive. Or, perhaps best of all, we can simply pretend the question doesn't even exist.

On the other hand, the less timid among us have been hard at work.

"Quantum theory has been subject to challenging tests for eight decades. No prediction by the theory has ever been shown wrong. It is the most battle-tested theory in all of science. It has no competitors. Nevertheless, if you take the implications of the theory seriously, you confront an enigma. The theory tells us that the reality of the physical world depends somehow on our observation of it."

Reality depends on our observation? Reality itself? Among the many mind boggling things that quantum physics reveals is that an object can be in two places at one time. How can this even be possible?

There exist some 'bigger picture' analogies that can help us with rationalization. For example, is infinity in more than one place at a time? Or gravity? Cannot our body be in one place and our mind in another? But rationalizations and metaphors are capable of only carrying us so far. At some point, concepts have to be sufficiently drilled down into, so that we can find veins of more thorough comprehension partnered up with practical realizations. Unfortunately, quantum physics, like mysticism, isn't there yet.

Quantum concepts first began emerging as theories in physics about a hundred years ago. As the ability to observe and measure improved with the development of more and more advanced instrumentation, theory began to transform into proven behaviors.

For example, one of the more recent developments occurred with the realization that a photon does not exist until it is observed to exist. In other words, an intention of some type is required. Indeed, "according to quantum theory, no property is physically real until it is observed." It's simply not there.

This utterly astonishing science is so disturbing that most scientists push it out of their minds, setting aside such seeming professional irrationality so as to not disrupt their pursuit of so-called normal science through the use of more 'rational' and conventional scientific approaches.

Implicit in the behavior of small things, however, is that large things - including humans - are made up of many small things. As goes the micro, so goes the macro. Disturbing or not, facts are facts, and behavior is behavior. Consciousness, it seems, is not the result of the brain. It is, instead, the cause of the brain.

Disturbing developments continue to emerge, including more recent experiments which prove that a thought or intention that occurs today - in the present - can tumble backwards through time - into the past - and change behavior. And not simply as measured in milliseconds, but rather in days, weeks, and longer.

How does this relate to each of us? It's truly mind bending, because our experience as people is that human behavior and actions are seemingly bound by far more mechanistic and predictable laws. After all, that's what we've been taught. Consciousness, if you will, is for the Mystics, the gullible and the superstitious.

But then Rosenblum and Kuttnet continue:

"That our actual world does not have separability is now generally accepted, though admitted to be a mystery. In principle, any objects that have ever interacted are forever entangled, and therefore what happens to one influences the other. Experiments have now demonstrated such influences extending over more than one hundred kilometers. Quantum theory has this connectedness extending over the entire universe."

"The behavior of one [thing] instantaneously influences the other, and the behavior of everything entangled with it. There is, in principle, a universal connectedness whose meaning we have yet to understand. We can indeed “see the world in a grain of sand.”"

The mysteries don't stop. An object can be in two different states at the same time. For example, it can be moving and not moving at the same time.

Can something be true and not true at the same time? Of course, we say. But quantum physics state an object can be here and somewhere else simultaneously. It can exist and not exist simultaneously. It can be both dead and alive within the same moment. It can be a particle and a wave at the same time. It can be in the past, present and future at the same time, pushing us to question the validity of time itself. And perhaps even more troubling, a type of strange internal awareness exists between these various states. A consciousness.

Put in a wider perspective, "Events at the edge of the galaxy instantly influence what happens at the edge of your garden."

Quantum physicists get uncomfortable when comparisons of their discoveries are made to timeless mystical teachings and philosophies. After all, physicists are practical and by training focused on things like cause and effect.Yet, when scientific concepts like "universal connectedness" are being discussed and observed, it's extraordinarily difficult NOT to make comparisons.

Interestingly, comparisons between mysticism and quantum physics are offering an amazing opportunity to develop a common language set that helps bridge the gap between the inner, subjective experience and the objective scientific world. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they also provide an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive unified theory.

In a recent short article "Let's Put Belief Aside for a Moment", I wrote:

So, let's do a little 'what if'. What if, in the pursuit of science and in the pursuit of unraveling the nature of the universe - including matter - quantum physics begins to realize the connectivity of everything? And begins to observe unseen forces that inexplicably transcend time and distance? Because this is exactly what is occurring right now.

And let's leave 'belief' out of it, at least for the moment. Let's just see it for what it is. Let's allow science itself to pull back the curtains.

I'll repeat it: let's keep 'belief' out of it, for now. Because science itself is about to prove the very things that mystics have been teaching for centuries... but have been unable to objectively, scientifically prove!

Give science a chance. It is knocking on a door that has been begging to be opened for centuries, for millennia. On the other hand, let's not be so quick to write off the value of the subjective experience.