HEISENBERG ALONE HAS LOOKED ON REALITY BARE
PROPOSAL FOR A REALLY NEW "NEW PHYSICS"
First appearance of Quantum Tantric conjecture in print:
Reprinted from Ars Electronica: Facing the Future
Timothy Druckrey, ed MIT Press (1999)
Quantum theory is the most far-ranging and successful attempt to understand
the physical world ever devised by human beings.
By the late Twenties quantum theorists had solved in elaborate detail the
most pressing physics problem of that era--how light interacts with atoms.
But along with its astonishing power to predict the most subtle light-matter
effects, this fledgling theory created a host of philosophical problems,
not the least of which was the bizarre notion that the world is in some
sense "not real" except during an act of measurement.
Many physicists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, and
French scientist-aristocrat Prince Louis De Broglie, felt that giving up
reality was too high a price to pay for a mere theory no matter how successful;
these physicists hoped in their hearts that quantum theory's triumphant
reign would be short-lived, that this preposterous reality-denying theory
would fail when applied outside the atom-sized realm where it had achieved
its initial success. The new theory however continued to prosper beyond
its inventors' wildest dreams, resolving even more complicated problems
of atomic structure, conquering the complexity of the atomic nucleus, some
ten thousand times smaller than the already minuscule atom, then extending
its range deeper into matter, down into the subnuclear realm of the elementary
particles--quarks, gluons and leptons--which many physicists believe to
be the world's ultimate constituents.
Each new predicative success made quantum physicists bolder. With this apparently
invincible theory in hand, quantum theorists searched for new worlds to
conquer, and turned their sights to the macrocosm where they convincingly
described the quantum chemistry of the primordial fireball, and now even
dare to model the birth of the Universe itself as one gigantic quantum leap:
from Nothing into Everything.
Exposed for almost 80 years to potential falsification on a thousand different
fronts, quantum theory has passed every test that three generations of Nobel-hungry
scientists can devise. On all levels accessible to experiment, quantum theory
generates flawless predictions for every single one of matter's quirky operations.
Faced with success after success the majority of physicists quietly decided
that to give up reality in exchange for quantum theory's immense predictive
power was not such a bad deal after all.
In addition to its repudiation of reality, quantum theory's whirlwind success
has propelled its frontiers for the most part outside the range of ordinary
human affairs. Having solved--in principle at least--all physics problems
on the ordinary scale, quantum physicists have been forced to seek fresh
unexplained phenomena either in the deep microscopic realm of the elementary
particles, or in subtle cosmological puzzles remote in time and space from
our daily concerns. As the domain of fundamental physics research retreats
from the scale of everydy life, increasingly costly apparatus is required
to subject these distant realms to experimental scrutiny. Because of the
great expense of these experiments, their technical complexity, and their
remoteness from our daily lives, direct participation in quantum research
is restricted to a few fortunate scientists--through whose efforts the rest
of us vicariously share in one of the twentieth-century's greatest intellectual
adventures: the exploration of the strange non-human landscape of the quantum
world, the struggle to comprehend the utterly alien logic of what the late
Heinz Pagels called "the cosmic code": quantum physics as the
language of nature.
Will the bizarre quantum world forever exist as the private preserve of
mathematicians and experimental physicists, or might ordinary people someday
gain access to its fabled realms? Recent research into quantum theory's
philosophical dimensions suggests that fundamental quantum research may
someday return to a human scale and allow every human being, no matter what
their academic credentials, to take part in the quantum adventure, joining
with physicists and mathematicians in an egalitarian adventure I call "holistic
physics." Holistic physics could open up a third front of quantum research
on the scale of ordinary experience with inexpensive equipment, which would
complement conventional quantum research on the cosmological and elementary
particle scales, a third front made possible by the very reality problem
that so distressed Einstein and other early quantum physicists.
The quantum reality problem arises primarily because quantum theory describes
the world in two ways, not one. Quantum theory represents an object differently
depending on whether it is being observed or not being observed. Every physicists
without exception uses this twofold quantum description in his or her own
work, but physicists hold many divergent opinions about "what is actually
going on" during these two stages in an object's existence: being observed
Whenever an object--bulldog, baseball, or baryon--is not under observation,
quantum physicists represent that object as a "wave of probability",
called the object's "wave function". instead of definite values
for attributes such as position, velocity and spin, each of the object's
attributes takes on--in the mathematics at least--a wide range of possible
values, values that oscillate in a wavelike manner at a variety of different
frequencies. This way of treating unobserved objects is one of quantum theory's
most peculiar features. Physicists treat an unobserved object not as a real
thing but as a probability wave, not as an actiual happening but only as
a bundle of vibratory possibilities.
On the other hand, when an object is observed, it always manifests at one
particular place, with one particular spin and velocity, instead of a smeared-out
range of physical properties. During the act of measurement, the mathematical
description abruptly shifts--from a spread-out range of possible attributes
(unmeasured object) to single-valued actual attributes (measured object).
This sudden measurement-induced switch of descriptions is called "the
collapse of the wave function", or simply "the quantum jump".
What actually happens during a quantum jump is the biggest mystery in quantum
physics. Whether this drastic shift in the mathematical description corresponds
to an actual dislocation in the real world or is a purely mathematical quirk
continues to be a matter of deep controversy in the physics community.
Not every physical action counts as a measurement. For instance, the action
of gravity on an object alters the structure of its probability wave in
a cakculatable manner but gravity does not in itself induce a quantum jump.
Many physicists believe that the essence of a measurement act is "making
a record", a notion I will adopt here. No record, no measurement. Only
those interactions in nature that leave behind permanebnt traces (records)
count as measurements. For instance, the flash of light in your eye, recorded
as a pattern of neural impulses is one such measurement, while the (unregarded)
fall of a sparrow is not. (When the sparrow hits the ground, however, and
leaves a mark in the grass one might argue that a measurement has occurred).
Only record-making devices have the power to turn multivalued possibilities
into single-valued actualities. If we take quantum theory seriously, the
world does not exist as an actuality except under the influence of special
recording devices; when unrecorded it exists only as hordes of intermingling
semi-real possibilities. Since only a tiny part of the world is lucky enough
to be in contact with a measuring device, most of the world, most of the
time is "not real", at least in its mathematical representation.
Some physicists. disturbed by quantum theory's antirealist stance, preferred
to go on believing that unobserved objects remain real, that is possessing
definite attributs at all times whether these asttributes are looked at
or not. In this view, which I call "ordinary realism", the fuzziness
in the quantum desription arises not from an objective fuzziness in the
attributes of quantum objects, but from the physicist's own ignorance concerning
the values of unobserved attributes. Likewise the quantum jump is not a
real physical event but a mere bookkeeping procedure that corresponds to
the sudden increase in the observer's knowledge that occurs in the act of
measurement. The gist of ordinary realism, in the words of British physicist
Paul Davies is that "big things are made of little things" where
"thing" means here an object that possesses definite attributes
whether observed or not.
As attractive as this common-sense position might seem, the majority of
physicists soundly reject it, holding that quantum phenomena must be taken
on their own terms and not forced into outmoded philosophical molds such
as ordinary realism. Quantum founding father and firm asntirealist Werner
Heisenberg declared, An atom is not a thing," and compared reality-nostalgic
physicists such as Einstein, Schrödinger and Prince De Broglie to believers
in the Flat Earth. "The hope that new experiments will lead somehow
to an objective world in time and space is as about as well founded,"
said Heisenberg," as the hope of discovering the edge of the earth
in some unexplored region of the Antarctic."
In place of ordinary realism Heisenberg proposed a new picture of quantum
reality--a model of what quantum objects are really doing when not being
looked at--that is based on taking quantum theory seriously, not as a mere
computational tool but as an actaul picture of existence at the quantum
To construct his vision of quantum reality, Heisenberg took quantum theory's
vibratory possibilities literally: the attributes of unobserved objects
exist, according to Heisenberg, exactly as represented in the theory--as
possibilities, not actualities. The unobserrved atom does not really have
a definite position, for instance, but only a tendency, an inclination,
to be in several possible positions all at the same time. The unwatched
atom in the Heisenberg picture, is not actually anywhere, but is potentially
everywhere. In Heisenberg's view an atom is certainly real, but its attributes
dwell in an existential limbo "halfway between an idea and a fact",
a quivering state of attenuated existence that Heisenberg called "potentia",
a world devoid of single-valued actuality but teeming with billions upon
billions of unrealized possibilities.
Since quantum theory technically applies to everything, not just to atoms,
all objects without exception must exist in this partially unreal state
of "objective indefiniteness" (Abner Shimony) until someone (or
something) decides to look at them. In the act of observation--called by
physicists the "act of measurement"--one of the object's vibratory
possibilities is promoted to a condition of full actuality, and all other
possibilities vanish without a trace. Which possibility is singled out to
become real during a measuement is apparently a matter of "pure chance",
that is, its causes (if any) lie completely outside the world of physical
Heisenberg's strange picture of the quantum world as half-real possibilities
that become actualized only during a measurement aact is considered by many
physicists as a most reasonable guess as to how the world deep down really
operates. Certainly many more physicists subscribe to the Heisenberg picture
than to the common-sense tenets of ordinary realism. To the average physicist
the notion that the ordinary world spends most of its time in an unreal
state is not considered preposterous. Since quantum theory describes so
correctly the world we see , they argue, it would be foolish not to take
seriously what it seems to be also telling us about the unseen world.
Because no measurement can ever tell us what the unmeasured world is like,
Heisenberg's pictue of quantum reality would seem to be impossible to verify
or refute. Some philosophers have argued, that because of their intrinsic
unverifiability, models of reality of the Heisenberg variety can be of no
possible interest to scierntists: they urge us to turn our interestrs elsewhere,
to theories and models that have consequences in the world that we can see
and touch. However, one important function that a model of the unseen reality
can perform is to help us in extending our thinking into unknowon realms.
For this purpose even a bad map might lead to new discoveries.
I would like to use Heisenberg's model of quantum reality in just this way,
to attempt to extend quantum ideas into a brand-new realm. To expand ordinary
physics into "holistic physics", the democratic science of the
future, I propose to conjoin Heisenberg's picture of "the way the world
really works" with a particular conjecture concerning the relation
of mind to matter.'
While modern science has largely mastered the world of matter, the world
of mind still remains a deep mystery, an intellectual black hole opaque
to systematic comprehension. It is fair to say that as far as scientific
understanding of the mind goes we are almost totally at sea. By the high
standards of explanation we have come to demand in physics and other sciences,
we do not even possess a bad theory of consciousness, let alone a good one.
Speculations concerning the origin of inner experience in humans and other
beings have been few vague and superficial. They include the notion that
mind is an "emergent property" of active neuronal nets, or that
mind is the "software" that manages the brain's unconscious "hardware".
To these rather soft specualtions I would like to add my own--that mind
is not a rare phenomenon associated with certain complex biological systems
but is everywhere, universal in nature, a fundamental quantum effect more
akin to superconductors and laser tubes than to computer circuitry.
As the cornerstone of holistic physics, I assume that every quantum system
has both an "inside" and an "outside", and that consciousness
in humasns as well as in other sentient beings is identical to the inner
experience of some quantum system. A quantum system's outside behavior is
described by quantum theory, its inside experience is the subject matter
of a new "inner physics" yet to be developed. The size of the
quantum system in the brain responsible for our familiar human form of consciousness
can be estimated from subjective measurements of conscious data rate--how
much information can you simultaneously pay attention to? The physical location
of the human consciousness system may be inferred from the action sites
of so-called psychedelic (mind-manifesting) drugs--molecules that alter
the basic structure of consciousness iyself rather than merely meddling
with its contents.
The notion that consciousness is intimately connected with quantum teory
is not new. In 1924, Alfred Lotka, one of the founders of modern theoretical
biology, guessed that the then-new physics of the quantum might someday
account for the phenomenon of human awreness. Recently neurobiologist Sir
John Eccles proposed that a non-material mind gains control over the matter
of the human brain via quantum-mechanical acts on certain intrinsically
inefficient neural synapses. World-class mathematician John von Neuman and
Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner claim that quantum theory is actually formally
incomplete--and that the least drastic way to make quantum theory mathematically
consistent is to introduce consciousness as the necessary accomplice of
every quantum jump. Despite its support by certain prominent physicists
and biologists, no serious experimental program has yet been conceived,
let alone carried out, to test the quantum consciousness hypothesis.
Many primitive peoples organized their lives around a doctrine we call "animism",
the belief that every object possesses sentient "insides" like
our own. The quantum consciousness assumption, which amounts to a kind of
"quantum animism" likewise asserts that consciousness is an integral
part of the physical world, not an emergent property of special biological
or computational systems. Since everything in the world is on some level
a quantum system, this assumption requires that everything be conscious
on that level. If the world is truly quantum animated, then there is an
immense amount of invisible inner experience going on all around us that
is presently inaccessible to humans, because our own inner lives are imprisoned
inside a small quantum system, isolated deep in the meat of an animal brain.
We may not need to travel into outer space to inhabit entirely new worlds.
New experiential worlds of inconceivable richness and variety may already
be present "at our fingertips"--worlds made up of strangely intelligent
minds that silently surround and interpenetrate our own modes of awareness.
Half-baked attempts to explain consciousness, such as mind-as-software or
mind-as-emergent-property do not take themselves seriously enough to confront
the experimental facts, our most intimate data base, namely how mind itself
feels from the inside. On the other hand, the most suggestive evidence for
a quantum model of mind is that the Heisenberg picture of how quantum events
actually happen in the world is extremely congruent with our own internal
experience of what it's like to be a sentient being. Loking inside, I do
not feel like "software" whatever that might mean, but indeed
like a shimmering (wavelike?) center of ambiguous potentia (possibilities?)
around which more solid perceptions and ideas are continually congealing
(quantum jumps?). This rough match of internal feeling with external description
could be utterly deceptive but it at least shows that the quantum model
of mind can successfully confront the introspective evidence in a way that
no other mind models even attempt.
Because of the two-fold character of the quantum description, this quantum
model of mind predicts two basic types of subjective experience: a clear,
determinate, computer-data type of experience (type-one consciousness) built
out of quantum jumps; and a fuzzy, indeterminate, ambiguous experience (type-two
consciousness), an insider's view of some of the brain's vibratory possibilities.
The vibratory nature of these conscious possibilities is not usually experienced
by humans for the same reason that the wavelike nature of sunlight eluded
observation for so long--light from the sun consists of wavelengths too
short to perceive under ordinary conditions. In the quantum animism model,
the quantum jump--Heisenberg's objective transition from half-real potentia
to solid actuality--corresponds to a conscious decision in the human mind,
or in the mind of some non-human sentient being, to promote part of its
ambiguous type-two experience to more unequivocal type-one status.
This quantum model of mind offers a new perspective on conscious experience
which could lead to a new "quantum psychology" linking our internal
experiences in a testable way to the objective external behavior of certain
(so far unidentified) brain-resident quantum systems. The problems of human
perception, emotion and personality as well as the mysterious extra-physical
origin of quantum jumps may well yield to a disciplined marriage of keen
introspection and quantum biology. Moving beyond quantum psychology, the
realization that behind every visible quantum process lies an invisible
psychic extension will result in a new kind of physics--I call it "quantum
tantra"-- in which human awareness becomes an essential component of
"If questions of a different kind can be asked, then nature will respond
in a new language."--Beverly Rubik, biophysicist
At the heart of quantum tantra will be a new kind of measurement that I
call "rapprochement" to distinguish it from the act of measurement
in conventional physics. While an ordinary measurement informs us about
a thing's outsides, rapprochement connects the observer to an object's heretofore
hidden insides, allowing him or her to directl;y experience the inner lives
of quantum systems.
As conventional measurement cannot penetrate to the inside of an object
to examine its quantum potentia because every conventional measurement.
no matter how delicate, inevitably triggers a quantum jump that erases all
potentia save one. This new kind of measurement--rapprochement--on the other
hand, connects the mind of the observer directly to the object's potentia
without the intervention of a quantum jump. The full content of the object's
inner life is adjoined to the inner life of the observer and their intermingled
potentias mutually enrich each other, without memorializing or prejudicing
one potentia over another.
To achieve rapprochement one needs a way of connecting the mind of the observer
to the "mind" of the object without making records; one needs
a so-called "oblivious link" which physically couples the brain's
consciousness to the object in question without initiating a quantum jump.
Since the inner lives of physical objects are almost certainly incomprehensible
in human terms, the first truly usable oblivious links will no doubt be
established between two human quantum centers of consciousness, not between
a human consciousness and the insides of some "inanimate" system.
Quantum-intimate brain-matter links with non-human beings will come later,
after we have practiced such linkage with humans.
Since magnetic fields can easily penetrate the brain and do not collapse
wave functions, one possible candidate for an oblivious link between two
brain centers might be a slowly varying magnetic field. Two humans with
their heads immersed in the same oscillating magnetic field may be the first
people to actually experience the pleasures of rapprochement, a new kind
of quantum-mediated telepathy.
However, the "telepathy" achieved during rapprochement will feel
very different from a mere exchange of data. The joining of two centers
of Heisenbergian potentia via an oblivious link does not make any records.
This new experience of insides-to-insides "essence merge" is a
moment-to-moment impression that is immediately forgotten. Indeed the experience
of multivalued potentia (type-two consciousness) is of a kind that by its
very nature must be forgotten, since only single-valued experiences (type-one
consciousness, or quantum jumps) can be recorded in the brain or anywhere
else in the world. One task of the quantum psychologist will be to determine
the relative proportion of type-one and type-two consciousnesses--the proportion,
loosely speaking, of "fact" and "fantasy"--in the minds
of various personality types. Although the experience of rapprochement is
soon forgotten, it is not without permanent effect of the participants.
The quantum potentias--and hence the scope of all their future possibilities--of
both partners in the quantum linkup are drastically altered by their intimate
Whether quantum tantra is the mind/body science of the future or a philosophical
shaggy-dog story depends on whether the human mind really is the private
insides of some quantum brain system (unknown) and on our ingenuity (untested)
in constructing oblivious links that jumplessly join brain centers to outside
German light/matter physicist Walter Heitler and others have claimed that
quantum theory requires that the separation of the world into an objective
outside reality and a self-conscious inner observer can no longer be maintained.
"Subject and object have become inseparable from each other, "
says Heitler. Yet I have practiced experimental quantum physics for more
than twenty years without once merging with my apparatus. Although quantum
object and quantum measuring device do indeed merge in the early stages
of measurement, that holistic merger is always cut short by the wave function
collapse, by the production of a single-valued record inside the measuring
device. A physicist never experiences fundamental union with the outside
world in a conventional quantum measurement because the quantum jump always
intervenes at the last minute to cleanly isolate the observer from the thing
Unlike conventional physics, quantum tantra really would erase the distinction
between subject and object. They became what they beheld in the quantum
tantra lab. There will be a very real danger in the obliviation operation
of getting "lost in space" and never coming back. That is probably
what will ultimately happen to our species. Scientists, generally wary of
all-engulfing non-intellectual experiences, will probably hold back. But
once they discover the peculiar exhilaration of rapprochement, ordinary
men and women will not hesitate to diffuse their beings into matter itself,
contacting, exploring, and adopting mindforms progressively more bizarre,
awaking out of ordinary consciousness as from a long dream, and filling
all of space-time with the tang of a new style of awareness that once
called itself human.