The Zen of Quantum Physics
Written by Robert Bonomo
Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated with two topics, Zen and quantum physics. Along the way there have been many things that have caught my fancy, from writers, film makers, philosophers and psychologists. But I always come back to Zen and physics, especially quantum physics.
I don’t pretend that this essay is original, many have written on the topic with much more authority than me. Even though I have no scientific background, I will try and delve a little more deeply than books like The Secret with the topical quotes from ‘international coaches and speakers’ like (I am paraphrasing) “new discoveries in quantum physics prove that our thoughts create our realities” or from Ig Nobel prize winner Deepak Chopra for this brilliant piece of writing, which I found on Wikipedia,
“Quantum healing is healing the body mind from a quantum level. That means from a level which is not manifest at a sensory level. Our bodies ultimately are fields of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the fields of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong. So quantum healing involves healing one mode of consciousness, mind, to bring about changes in another mode of consciousness, body.”
I think he was really burning the midnight oil, (and maybe some other substances) when he wrote that one. It is extremely easy to fall into ridiculous clichés when discussing these topics, but by doing so they lose all their mystery.
The one reason why I keep coming back to Zen and quantum physics is that I never really understood either one, and so the fascination never wore off. They are the unrequited loves who never gave in to my advances, no matter what I tried or how long I persisted. And in a sense, they imitate the dreaminess of love with the sense of wonder they inspire. Somehow, the subatomic world of quarks, photons and electrons is as wonderful as the Big Bang and Black Holes, Haikus and the Bodhidharma.
While classical physics, and even Relativity are understandable, if vaguely sometimes, the quantum mysteries are still mysteries for even the physicists themselves, and that I find very appealing. The key mystery for each human being is the origin and destiny of their own essence and what is our essence other than our consciousness? Consciousness, personal and impersonal, is the key to Zen. To become enlightened is to leave your personal consciousness and enter the universal consciousness. You realize you are not a pinky, but part of an entire body. Easy to conceptualize but very, very difficult to feel completely.
In quantum theory subatomic particles exist in probability waves, and are only defined when “something conscious” observes them. Otherwise they are everywhere and nowhere. This may be a simplification, but it captures the essence of the enigma. The famous phrase from Einstein about God not rolling the dice comes from this mystery. Einstein wanted a deterministic universe, but unfortunately, he didn’t get it. Schrodinger summed it up in his famous thought experiment about whether the cat is dead or alive. The thought experiment helps us to focus on the mystery of state. What state is the cat in before someone observes? It’s not clear.
Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum theory, wrote:
“One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks”
Basically, the cat is neither alive nor dead till someone observes it. I love the last sentence. It captures the essence of quantum theory. The theory is clear, but the laws are ‘murky’ as Schrodinger puts it.
Applied quantum theory works wonderfully; it has enabled much technological advancement from microchips to lasers. There is no debate about whether it works or not. It is real. Most scientists spend their time on the practical applications and leave the “spooky” part to others. What has fascinated me is the idea that our consciousness plays an active role in creating reality. No one imagines the world will end when they die. It clearly continues once our consciousness disappears in death (I will assume here it does).
As a young history student, I was always fascinated by Calvin’s concept of pre-destination. I found it disturbing that we had no choice in the final outcome. God was all knowing, hence he knew before he created us whether we would be saved or not. In a sense, Einstein was a Calvinist, and the Niels Bohr, the principal figure in quantum theory, was a Catholic. The Catholic Church disputed the predestination theory, arguing the sacraments allowed a person to ‘choose’. A photon can be a particle, or it can be a wave. What converts it from wave to particle is some ways appears to be conscious observation.
The riddle of Zen is a different one. By ‘being’ the conscious observer, we ‘lose our consciousness’. The greatest obstacle to enlightenment is the ego. Zen also has its own thought experiments, Koans in the Rinzai tradition. A Koan is something that one meditates on, with the hope that at some point, the conscious egoic mind tires and breaks down and the truth hits you, but not through the thinking mind. The most famous Koan and the first one given to many students is Mu.
“A monk asked Zhaozhou, a Chinese Zen master (known as Jōshū in Japanese): “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?”, Zhaozhou answered: “Wú” (in Japanese, Mu).”
One of the great axioms of Buddhism is Form is Emptiness, and Emptiness is Form. Try to imagine a circle drawn perfectly on a white piece of paper, in black ink. What is inside the black line is the form, the black line is the emptiness. Not easy? Does it remind you of the cat being alive and dead? To feel alive and enlightened I must fully realize that I don’t exist. Niels Bohrs said “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”
Einstein said, “I can’t accept quantum mechanics because it involves spooky actions at a distance.” For example, two electrons from the same hydrogen atom fly out into space in different directions and they are millions of light years apart. Each has a ‘spin’, up or down let’s say. One must be up, and the other down, but we don’t know which is which until we measure. And once we measure one, the other one “somehow knows”. Einstein’s spooky action. Communication faster than the speed of light, or maybe some sort of movement back in time as some have suggested.
I wish I could offer the great unifying theory of Zen and Quantum Physics, but that would be like finally sleeping with my great unrequited love, and at this point, I prefer to maintain the mystery and keep her at a “spooky distance.”
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Robert Bonomo is a novelist and blogger, you can download his novels for free here
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