The nature of reality

Hmmm. Reality. Interesting concept, but do we have a clue as to what it really is?

Well, actually, no. All we have is this consensus. We all agree that things are pretty much as they seem. But, it could be, as George Musser says, that

The universe we see playing out in space may be just the surface level, where we float like little boats while leviathans stir in the deep. [from: Musser, George. Spooky Action at a Distance: The Phenomenon That Reimagines Space and Time–and What It Means for Black Holes, the Big Bang, and Theories of Everything (p. 182). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.]

Mosser says that many of the leading researchers and theorists in physics and the related fields of quantum mechanics and such question the very ground of assumptions that science has made for the past several centuries. “Localism” or the idea that things have a position in space – pretty basic assumption, right? — is no longer held to be a valid scientific idea.

Which is confirmed by recent, high-level experiments reported in this Atlantic article, and is increasingly becoming the consensus opinion of scientists in the field. Borrowing a very telling metaphor from physicist and philosopher Jenann Ismael, Musser says:

Today we know that the universe has more to it than things situated within space. Nonlocal phenomena leap out of space; they have no place in its confines. They hint at a level of reality deeper than space, where the concept of distance ceases to apply, where things that appear to lie far apart are actually nearby or perhaps are the same thing manifested in more than one place, like multiple images of a single shard of kaleidoscopic glass. When we think in terms of such a level, the connections between subatomic particles across a lab bench, between the inside and the outside of a black hole, and between opposite sides of the universe don’t seem so spooky anymore.

Ismael says that like a kaleidoscope, where a single bead of glass is “redundantly represented” in different parts of the view screen of the device, what we are learning about the nature of reality means

…seeing space as we know it— everyday space in which we view measurement events located at different parts of space— as an emergent structure. Maybe when we’re looking at two parts, we’re seeing the same event. We’re interacting with the same bit of reality from different parts of space.

In other words, space – in fact, the so-called “space-time continuum” – doesn’t really ‘exist’ in the way we usually think of that term. We are seeing effects from some deeper level of whose nature we have no notion. Physicists are just beginning to suggest various ways of thinking about this, ideas for ideas, that may eventually lead to an understanding of at least a theory of what it actually is, even though it’s very unlikely we’ll ever have evidence or experience of that actuality itself. An emergent structure. A reality that is emerging from some other, unknown, level. Spacetime is an experience that we have, but that manifestation is coming from some other more basic reality.

Bogles the mind really. But that’s because we’re trying to think of these things in terms of space, in terms of locality, in terms of our experience. Because that’s the only way our mind works. So scientists engaging this question are looking for a completely new way of conceiving of reality. Pretty challenging.

As Musser says, “This thinking completely inverts physics. Nonlocality is no longer the mystery; it’s the way things really are, and locality becomes the puzzle. When we can no longer take space for granted, we have to explain what it is and how it arises, either on its own or in union with time.”

These building blocks of spacetime would have neither size nor location, much as a molecule of water is not “wet”. Only the combination of the molecules produces the phenomena we know as water, with all it’s attendant properties. Or like building a model of the Eiffle Tower with popsicle sticks.

In this approach, space is thought of as a notion that explains, or organizes in a convenient way, what we experience. That we might eventually develop a theory that explains that notion in a more causal, existential way is pretty exciting to me.

I intend to try to keep up with the progress in this area, and try to understand it. Which is what leads me to blog about it, creating a new category here, “Quantum Reality” to help me follow and develop my own understanding. Hope some of you find that interesting and will join me in this fascinating quest.





The Meeting of Mind and Matter?

This is from a reader, Don Salmon:

In 1994, neurophysiologist Jacobo Grinberg-Zylberbaum published the results of more than 50 experiments which suggested the possibility of one person’s mind having an effect on another person’s body. In these experiments Grinberg-Zylberbaum had subjects meditate together for 20 minutes. They were then placed in separate rooms known as “Faraday cages,” which are both soundproof and electro-magnetic radiation proof. One of the subjects (“Subject A”) was presented at random intervals with a series of 100 stimuli including flashes of sound and light. The other subject (“ Subject B”) received no stimuli. He was instructed to stay relaxed, to try to feel the presence of the other, and to signal the experimenter when he was relaxed and believed he was able to feel the other’s presence.

When the experiment was completed, the EEG brain wave records of the two subjects were examined and compared. The brain wave patterns of Subject A showed the expected responses to the stimuli of light and sound. What is remarkable is that the brain waves of Subject B showed responses corresponding in time to the responses of Subject A, even though Subject B had not been presented with any stimuli. One of the most interesting outcomes occurred in the brain wave patterns of a young couple who reported “feeling deep oneness… Their EEG patterns remained closely synchronized throughout the experiment.”

The Meeting of Mind and Matter?

Most scientists agree that the results of parapsychological research are difficult to understand in the context of our current notions regarding the relationship between mind and matter. Some parapsychologists suggest that the idea of “nonlocality,” derived from quantum physics, might help us better understand psi phenomena. “Nonlocality” refers to findings in quantum physics which seem to conflict with our conventional understanding of how things work. According to the laws of classical physics, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. “Nonlocality” refers to the idea that “objects that are apparently separate are actually connected instantaneously through space-time.”

In the early 1960s, physicist John Stewart Bell worked out mathematical calculations showing that nonlocality was an unavoidable implication of quantum theory. According to Larry Dossey, Bell showed that:

if two particles that have once been in contact are separated, a change in one results in a change in the other – immediately and to the same degree. The degree of separation between the particles is immaterial; they could theoretically be placed at opposite ends of the universe.

Apparently no energetic signal passes between them, telling one particle that a change has taken place in the other, because the changes are instantaneous; there is no time for signaling. The distant particles behave as though they were united as a single entity – paradoxically, separate but one.

Physicists were hesitant to accept Bell’s findings, but in 1982, Alain Aspect performed an experiment which definitively showed nonlocality to be an aspect of the workings of matter. His experiment was replicated in 1997 by Nicolas Gusin.

The discovery of nonlocal connections is leading scientists to a radically new understanding of matter. Biologist Mae Wan-Ho claims to have found many examples of nonlocal effects in biological organisms as well. She uses the term “quantum coherence” to describe a process by which all components of the organism are in instant and continuous communication. According to Ervin Laszlo, this instantaneous, system-wide correlation cannot be explained according to the laws of classical, non-quantum physics.

Parapsychologists and other scientists believe that ideas like nonlocality and quantum coherence suggest that matter is more mind-like than we have previously thought. For example, earlier we mentioned Freeman Dyson’s characterization of atoms as behaving “like active agents rather than inert substances,” making “unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics.”

Some parapsychologists – observing that nonlocality challenges the classical understanding of time and space – suggest it might be used to explain psi findings which seem to imply that consciousness is capable of transcending time and space. By transforming our understanding of how matter works, quantum physics has presented us with a view of the universe more compatible with psi phenomena than that of classical physics. But physical theories – quantum or otherwise – can give us, at best, only an indirect understanding of the nature of consciousness. Dyson himself is careful to say that he is not claiming that his view “is supported or proved by scientific evidence… [but] only… that it is consistent with scientific evidence.” And, as physicist Arthur Zajonc points out, the objective approach of physics “remains silent on… the experience of a perceiving subject.”

If neither psychology nor the findings of physics provide us with any fundamental understanding of consciousness, where might we look – and how should we look – to gain a new view? We can start by looking directly at the subjective experience of the individuals engaged in parapsychology experiments.

For many years, psi researchers have noticed that subjects who are passionately involved in an experiment tend to be the most successful. We saw in the Grinberg-Zylberbaum experiments that the young couple in love showed the highest level of brain wave synchronization. While this may not be so surprising with regard to communication between humans, experiments show this to be the case even in the relationship between a human being and a machine.

Robert G. Jahn, as director of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory (PEAR), observed hundreds of trials in which individuals successfully influenced the workings of highly sensitive electronic instruments. As described on the PEAR website:

In these studies human operators attempt to bias the output of a variety of mechanical, electronic, optical, acoustical, and fluid devices to conform to pre-stated intentions, without recourse to any known physical influences. In unattended calibrations all of these sophisticated machines produce strictly random data, yet the experimental results display increases in information content that can only be attributed to the consciousness of their human operators.

Jahn, explaining these results, writes, “The most common subjective report of our most successful human/machine experimental operators is some sense of ‘resonance’ with the devices – some sacrifice of personal identity in the interaction – a ‘merging,’ or bonding with the apparatus.” Larry Dossey adds, “The highest scores are seen when emotionally bonded couples, who share unusually deep love and empathy, interact together with the electronic devices. They achieve scores up to eight times higher than those of individuals who try to influence the devices alone.”

In a rather radical departure from the typically impersonal stance of the view from nowhere, Dossey suggests there may be an extremely close relationship between the nonlocal connections of subatomic particles and the feelings of empathy described above. “Nonlocal connectedness… is manifested between subatomic particles, mechanical systems, humans and machines, humans and animals, and humans themselves. When this nonlocal bond operates between people, we call it love. When it unites distant subatomic particles, what should we call this manifestation? Should we choose a safe, aseptic term such as nonlocally correlated behavior, or bite the bullet and call it a rudimentary form of love?” Dossey is not claiming that human beings and subatomic particles have the same experience of love. Rather, he suggests that what manifests as a purely impersonal connection at the level of matter may be, in essence, the same phenomenon as that which occurs between loving human beings.

Perhaps this is what William James was hinting at when he wrote:

We with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest. The maple and pine may whisper to each other with their leaves…but the trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands hang together through the oceans’ bottom. Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother sea…

Aha! No black holes! ???

Here’s an interesting ‘graph from an even more interesting article:

Black holes are frustrating, though, because their extreme gravity exposes the major inadequacy in our current scientific understanding of the universe – we don’t know how to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. With general relativity, we can make accurate predictions about objects with certainty, but on the tiny scale of quantum mechanics it’s only possible to talk about the behaviour of objects in terms of probability. When we do the maths on what happens to things that fall into black holes, using relativity gives results that break quantum mechanics; the same goes vice versa.

–From: New Statesman, Stephen Hawking now thinks...

Another astounding note: “The choice for physicists, once again, was to: a) accept the firewall, and throw out general relativity, or b) accept that information dies in black holes, and quantum mechanics is wrong.”

Perhaps a better explanation of it, tho longer, is found here: Nature – Steven Hawking: there are no black holes…

The interesting thing about all this to me is that it shows just how confused science is about what’s actually going on in the universe. Despite the fact that our old science and a little general relativity work pretty well on the practical scale so that rockets shot at the moon actually get there and such, it’s much less satisfying on the philosophical level. It doesn’t work at all when it comes to answering really fundamental questions like ‘what is the source of gravity?’ or ‘what is the nature of light?’ or ‘how do we know that what we know is accurate?’.

From another source, an even better formulation of the problem:

As I have mentioned in previous articles, physics is fractured. It has produced two theories that are shining beacons of modern science: quantum mechanics and general relativity. Both are accurate to the limits of our ability to measure them, and both have predicted results that were years ahead of their time and later experimentally verified. However, the similarities end there. At the heart of quantum mechanics is a mathematical framework of linear equations that describes the very small bits of the universe as probabilistic. General relativity is described by an elegant set of highly nonlinear equations that detail the very big in a completely deterministic manner: polar opposites that stand in stark contrast with one another. This discrepancy has reared its ugly head every now and again, but one place it is clearly demonstrated is the “information loss paradox.”

— From Matt Ford in ArsTechnica A potential solution…

Though this paradox seems to have been resolved here: Astrophysics — it’s still a basic contradiction between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and leaves many questions unanswered. And raises as many new ones as it answers, at least for me:

… presenting physicists with a stark choice: either accept that firewalls exist and that general relativity breaks down, or accept that information is lost in black holes and quantum mechanics is wrong1. “For us, firewalls seem like the least crazy option, given that choice,” says Marolf.

The failings of science are even more pronounced when we get into questions about why and how all this is even here in the first place. Personally, I’ve always preferred the ancient formula — “What happens at the end of a kalpa? The Iron Tree blooms in the Void.”