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From Quanta to Qualia: The Mystery of Reality (Part 1)

Posted: 10/08/2012 3:04 pm

This piece was co-written with Menas Kafatos, Ph.D. and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.

Wherever reality leads, science follows. The two are inseparably linked, as they must be when science is our way of knowing reality. Reality shifts in ways that are unpredictable and strange. Time and space took very strange turns a century ago, for example, while cause and effect turned into a game of probabilities, and the solid physical universe dissolved into invisible energy clouds. Quantum theory had arrived, keeping pace with where reality led it. What Einstein called the "spookiness" of activity at the quantum level has only become spookier since.

Now it appears that reality is about to lead us into new, unexpected paths once more. A hint of the future was provided decades ago by one of the most brilliant quantum pioneers, Wolfgang Pauli, when he said, "It is my personal opinion that in the science of the future reality will neither be 'psychic' nor 'physical' but somehow both and somehow neither." By using a word that science shuns, "psychic," Pauli was pointing to a kind of ultimate mystery. The vast physical mechanism we call the universe behaves more like a mind than like a machine. To thousands of working physicists, the riddle of mind and matter doesn't apply to their research. But the founder of quantum physics, Max Planck, had no doubt that mind would eventually become the elephant in the room, an issue too massive and obvious to ignore. Planck is worth quoting in full: "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness."

The reason that mixing mind with matter disturbs many scientists isn't a secret. Mind rules the subjective world, while matter is the basis of the physical world, and science is dedicated to gathering objective data from it. Subjectivity is fickle, individual, shifting, and prey to all kinds of bias, if not outright delusion. Consciousness therefore has been systematically excluded from scientific consideration; it's simply a given that all of us are conscious, and a given doesn't need to be factored into the equation.

But Planck and Pauli were not alone in suspecting that consciousness was more than a given. Mind holds some kind of key to the nature of reality. Neither Planck nor Pauli followed up on the mystery they had uncovered. There was no need to, not for a long time. Quantum physics blossomed into the most accurate and mathematically sophisticated model in the history of science. It achieved such precise results that its predictive powers were nothing less than stunning. As the eminent British physicist Sir Roger Penrose notes, Newton's gravitational theory as applied to the movement of the solar system is precise to one part in 10 million. Einstein's theory of relativity improved upon Newton by another factor of 10 million.

Spooky as the domain of quarks and bosons may be, even to trained physicists, it obeys mathematical rules and can be predicted using those same rules. Reality, it cannot be denied, has led science along a very productive path. Leaving consciousness out of the equation was like leaving metaphysics out of cookbooks. You don't need metaphysics to measure cake flour and butter. But its commitment to follow reality wherever it leads can make science very uncomfortable, especially when it's time to overturn some cherished assumptions. That time inevitably arises, however, for one simple reason: Reality is always more complicated than the models we use to explain it.

In this series of posts, we want to follow up on Planck's and Pauli's intuition that consciousness will turn out to be the thing you cannot get behind. We think their intuition was right. The future of science depends on factoring in the mind. We don't say this because we happen to be fans of the mind or have a personal stake in boosting it. Science has come to a turning point by following its own findings. We hope to show this in some detail, and our aim, although not stated in mathematical language, is to be scientific in the best sense: We want to expand the accepted picture of nature and to discover where in the cosmos human beings belong.

Part 1: Quantum Reality

The hints about consciousness are hidden in our existing model of reality. Today's science, as it is practiced, assumes an external reality "out there," existing independently of any observers (and not limited just to human observers). Therefore, the universe is independent of the human mind, even as our minds conceive the theoretical constructs of science. This sounds like common sense. People may be baffled by the riddle, "Does a tree falling in the woods make a sound if no one is around to hear it?" but they have no problem with, "Did the Big Bang occur if no one was around to see it?" Yes, of course.

Although at first this seems obvious and reasonable, a fixed, solid, reliable universe is inconsistent with quantum mechanics, whose incredible precision deals with the finest level of nature, the subatomic domain. In everyday life we seem to experience a world "out there," while our own feelings, thoughts, sensations, etc., seem to be "in here." That's what we believe and what classical Newtonian physics taught. Quantum physics presents us with a radically different viewpoint: The subatomic quanta whose properties we study in the laboratory are inexorably tied to the act of measurement. The observer is involved in what he observes. Quantum properties exist in potential form (invisible, unlocatable in time and space) until a measurement is actually carried out.

Before that moment, no specific values can be assigned. Once a measurement takes place, hidden potentialities reduce to specific values. This is called the "collapse of the wave function." Quantum theory calculates with great accuracy probabilities of occurrence, but it cannot say for certain what will happen when a measurement takes place, only how probable it is to get a particular value. Nor can it say -- and this is the crucial point -- how the act of observation actually effects what is going on "out there." Common sense tells us that looking at a sunset doesn't change the sunset. But common sense is confounded in quantum reality. In some mysterious way, looking isn't a passive act.

Most physicists, including the ones who put the theory together almost a century ago, accept the probabilistic nature of events (not everyone, however; Einstein never stomached the quantum world, even though he did much to launch the quantum revolution). But at the same time, most scientists go about their profession as if the classical world were indeed an accepted reality. They drive to work in cars, not in clouds of probability waves. They do science at a level far grosser than the quantum domain, on the assumption that quantum behavior is confined to the microscopic world. But the usefulness of a reliable, fixed physical world is at bottom invalid.

Everything we see, touch, taste, and smell is founded on a more fundamental level, and when you get down to the building blocks of nature, you find a shadowy dance of quanta that don't have any "hard" material presence. Hardness is a quality that dissolves as we go into smaller dimensions. So do all the familiar qualities delivered by the five senses. Imagine that two powerful magnets approach each other with their positive poles facing each other. Similar poles repel, so at a certain point, two powerful magnets would stop dead because repulsion forces them to go no further. If magnets could speak, they'd say that they ran into an invisible hard wall. But when viewed at a finer level, hardness dissolves into the activity of an invisible force field.

If you go even deeper, across the boundary of time and space to reach the precreated source of the universe, the physical world disappears even more radically. Quantum properties vanish. Armed with the developing theory of superstrings, it now appears that entire universes can (perhaps) "pop out" of the nothingness of the quantum vacuum state. In this way the smallest and largest levels of nature get unified through the rich fullness of the quantum vacuum. The world of quanta is a world of "haps" (infinitesimal happenings). This view of constant change was also held by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. But what seems to prevail as we move around our everyday existence is the view of another Greek philosopher, Democritus, who taught that the atoms (in Greek meaning "indivisible") were tiny and hard and could not be divided any further. Subatomic theory makes this view invalid, even though we act as if it were true.

Modern quantum theory says that at some point all the forces of nature get unified, including the weakest of them all, gravity. As we approach that ultimate limit, called the Planck dimension, the elementary particles get dissolved into tiny vibrating strings of energy, until we reach the Planck limit, where space and time themselves cease to exist. Thus modern quantum theory predicts the end of physics (and itself) as reality leads us to the vanishing point that is also the point of unity. But does the human mind stop there, also? Can we go beyond the ultimate limit of the physical? What does it mean that there is no space and time? The human mind keeps asking such questions, which turn out to be questions about itself as well as about fundamental reality. The thinking mind, armed with its product, the language of mathematics, seeks to go beyond. This yearning is the topic of our next post, where we will discover that other products of the mind, not just mathematics, are capable of probing the finest fabrics of creation.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., is Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics at Chapman University. Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., is Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

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