As no doubt has been happening for others, the current Coronavirus has been stimulating more thinking and sharing of articles and so two evenings ago, a group I set up with friends had its first go at meeting via Zoom. My brilliant friend Mario was presenting on Quantum Physics and I am lucky enough to have a group of great friends who are deeply interested in combining spiritual perspectives with scientific thinking in an open minded and insightful way so the discussion took off afterwards and has continued. At the same time, I have friends who have been sending me articles such as Charles Eisenstein’s article about the current Coronavirus crisis as well as watching Terence McKenna’s ideas about the I-Ching with my lodger Dion. I have read many good articles by friends and so I can see, as always happens in these situations of blockage, there is a growth of creativity as we are forced out of our normal patterns. It is what Edward de Bono calls a PO – a provocative operation – which is needed to block our current way of thinking so that we can make asymmetrical leaps in our perspective.
What I have been thinking about is combining 3 different threads which I think may well be connected. I recognise that what I am putting forward is speculation and as the Tao Te Ching says “he who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know”! That is reassuring as I am clearly allowed to speak since I very definitely do not know – for all my naturally confident way of putting my ideas across. I am also reassured, so far ,that it is still a mystery for all of us so why not add my thoughts into the pot as it is all speculation and theory?
So here goes! The three threads that I want to put forward are a possible way of thinking about the quantum physics conundrum that the observer appears to influence the outcome of the experiment, the experiments by Ben Libet in the 1970s and since that create a conundrum around the level of free-will that we really have and Charles Eisenstein’s and others articles and thinking about the current environment.
Let me start with the quantum physics conundrum that my friend Mario was presenting since that is what sparked all of this. When he presented the research he was pointing out that the scientists were baffled by the fact that the observer appears to influence the experiment to quite mystical and bizarre levels. In the standard double slit experiment a beam of particles (for example electrons) is fired through a double slit and then hits a screen behind it creating an interference pattern on the screen like a wave would. If you then fire a series of single particles (which you would expect to pass either through one slit or the other without interfering with each other) through the slits then they still create an interference pattern as if they were a wave which appears to make no sense. So the conclusion was that quantum particles exist in an indeterminate state until they are measured at which point they become either a wave or a particle – the quantum field or state is collapsed. It’s worth noting that this is an assumption or theory – I say this because this has become one of those things that forms a base assumption for almost everybody putting forward theories about quantum physics and so it is forgotten that it is an assumption or theory not necessarily reality.
The next step physicists took was to use the same apparatus but place a detector at one of the slits to see which slit the particle ‘actually’ went through. In this case the interference pattern on the screen was replaced by a simple pattern of two clumps, one directly behind each slit, exactly as if ‘solid’ particles had passed through the slits without interfering with each other. So it appeared that the act of measurement determined whether the electrons would behave as waves or particles. To probe this, physicists went a stage further and introduced entangled particles knowing that with quantum entanglement, what you do to one particle directly impacts the other. So they set up an experiment allowing one particle (A) to hit the screen, while observing its entangled partner (B). What they expected, by observing several such pairs over time was that the ‘A’ particles would produce an interference pattern since they had not been observed but they didn’t, they acted as if it had been measured and produced a clump pattern on the screen. Physicists then had the idea to delay the observation of the ‘B’ particles until after their entangled ‘A’ partners had hit the screen. Surely now the ‘A’ particles would have to produce an interference pattern, since neither they nor their entangled ‘B’ partners had been observed until after the pattern had been produced on the screen? But once again the ‘A’ particles produced a clump pattern. Physicists were baffled: how could observing the ‘B’ particles cause the quantum collapse of the ‘A’ particles backwards in time?
In a final twist known as the ‘delayed choice quantum eraser experiment’, physicists inserted ed a complex arrangement of prisms, lenses, mirrors, beam-splitters [or simply say ‘optics’] and detectors behind the double slits. The intention was to probe whether it was indeed the act of measurement that caused the ‘quantum collapse’ of waves into particles, or something else. What they discovered seemed to suggest that a measurement by a physical device alone could not in fact produce the collapse, unless accompanied by knowledge and understanding of that measurement, in other words, consciousness. To quote nuclear physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls: “You see, the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge, and knowledge requires somebody who knows.”
This represents a conundrum for physicists because it appears that knowledge of which path the particle is taking affects the outcome of the experiment. This seems strange because one explanation is that, since the path information is the determinant of whether it is a particle or wave and this is not known until it is measured, that the measurement or observer is affecting the past. It has also led many people to conclude that since measurement or observation is affecting the outcome of the experiment then it must be consciousness that is affecting the experiment, forwards and backwards in time. Connecting a spiritual perspective (which I do not necessarily disagree with) that consciousness is creating everything with the results of the experiment seems a nice way to heal the Cartesian divide and explain the conundrum. Whilst this is tempting, I am not convinced the experiment is showing this or supports this view and I am not certain that time is operating in this way – ie. the past can be affected by the present in this way. It is tricky because generally I do subscribe to the idea that time is more mysterious and complex than we think and that consciousness is playing a role in a way that many religious perspectives suggest. However, I don’t think, however tempting it might be, we can squash these two together in this way.
There is another solution to this experimental conundrum that is not being looked at because there is a certain assumption in our world view. By way of a tangent I want to highlight that this different world view is relevant to the way I understand and approach life and how I see it working. So please bear with me in my apparently circuitous approach to this! As an astrologer, I can look at the pattern of how the universe is working and I can look at future transits and say something about the themes that will be at play. Other astrologers can do the same. This suggests that there is a pattern inherent and at play in the universe.
This brings me to the second element that I wanted to connect here and that is the experiments started by Ben Libet in the 1970s. In these experiments, Libet had access to patients having brain operations. They were given a local anaesthetic so that they could stay conscious and talk to Libet. He would stimulate the tip of their little finger with a pin-prick and look at the sensory cortex on the opposite side associated with the little finger to monitor the effect. He would then ask the patient when they felt the pin-prick. At the same time he would stimulate that part of the brain directly and ask them when they felt that. The result was baffling: the patients would report the feeling immediately when the little finger was pricked but there would be a delay when the brain was stimulated directly. How could this be? It must take time for the nerve to carry the signal to the brain, surely? Libet and others came up with all sorts of theories about this to try to explain it, including the idea that time moved backwards. In fact this became the prevailing theory and was called The Time Reversal Theory. Whilst Libet tried to prove this experimentally he eventually concluded that there was no evidence for it. In a 2010 Horizon documentary, The Secret You, Marcus du Sautoy undertook an experiment to see whether our decisions are made consciously. The results from an experiment in a scanner in Berlin were then explained by Professor John-Dylan Haynes from the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience. He pointed out that by monitoring du Sautoy’s brain while he was making apparently random decisions to press either a left or right button in each of his hands, the scanner showed six seconds before he pressed the button what choice he was going to make.
Ben Libet’s experiments and the conclusion that time moves backward is reminiscent of the current thinking on quantum physics. Both remind me of Ptolemy’s ancient attempts to explain the orbits of the planets with a series of intricate related circles because it could not be conceived that the heavens would contain imperfect circles – an elliptical orbit. This is important for me because my experience in coaching people for many years and with my own life is based on Edward de Bono’s point that I described at the outset, namely, that we cannot arrive at a new understanding through our current thinking (much as Einstein pointed out in his famous quote) but rather that we have to be blocked in order to make an asymmetric leap to a new perspective. This asymmetric leap requires a giving up of our current assumptions which are almost impossible for us to see because they are so deeply embedded. This has been the history of science in terms of each breakthrough in understanding and is described by my friend and teacher Chrissy Philp in her black-hole game theory. It is also what most religions or spiritual traditions teach – that if you have an argument with the way things are, or think they should not be like that, then the problem lies with your frame not with the world.
So, finally, to what I think might (and only might) be the fundamental assumption that needs to change for us to understand the quantum physics experiment. I do not think that the observer collapses the wave function or that the particle exists in a super-position state of neither particle or wave or both until we observe it. Or even that the reality around us does not exist until our consciousness creates it and creates the past and present simultaneously. What I think is that there is a cosmic field or mind operating that has inherent laws playing out, in much the same way that an acorn will become an oak. It cannot become an ash or a daffodil. So, it is not that the observer changes the experiment or that weird, mystical stuff is happening. It is that there is a law at work which includes the outcome already but this is not influenceable by us. We cannot “game” the system or trick it because our attempts to game or trick it are already part of the game playing out. The implications for me are that the role of consciousness is not to change this – it cannot – but rather to see it or become aware of it. In a way which I do not fully understand and cannot explain, this then changes the nature of that flow or pattern but it won’t turn an acorn into a daffodil.
This brings me to the last point about what people like Charles Eisenstein are saying about the current crisis. It is great to think about how we could organise or structure life or what it should be like or could be like, but I am not sure that is how Life is working or that we have that possibility. I think it might be much more that we can be more and more aware of the nature of Life and how it is playing out and that the more we work with this and see this, then it changes.