Monday, 11 November 2013

Examine the Parallels between Quantum Mechanics and Mysticism.

This essay is not concerned with specifically addressing the general relationship between science and religion. Instead, we hope to explore themes that are emerging in modern quantum physics that are common to mysticism. We will show the limitations of language and difficulties in conceptualizing proposed systems of reality exist in a similar way in both fields. Yet, we must also critique the validity of such comparison.

It is necessary to understand some scientific background before we can begin to examine these fields effectively. Since the early twentieth century, scientific thinkers such as Albert Einstein have talked about the concept of space-time. Space-time is a system that proposes a four-dimensional reality made up of the three spatial dimensions, with time making up the fourth. Through this discovery, conventional models to understand the universe are no longer sufficient. In the same way that we understand space to be relative – two objects can appear to relate to each other differently to two different observers – time is now also a relative dimension. We can observe two things happening simultaneously from earth, but due to the time taken for the light from each event reaching us, an observer in another galaxy might see the events as consecutive. Hence it makes no sense to talk of events occurring in a sequence, except in relation to a fixed observer. This phenomenon is experienced in the micro world as well. In collisions of sub-atomic particles it can be difficult to explain events in a chronological sequence. Through the existence of anti-particles, those with equal mass and opposite charge and velocity any partial collision is reversible when the particles are replaced by their anti-particle equivalent. Without going into the scientific details, it suffices to state, in the words of De Broglie, ‘in space-time, everything which for us constitutes the past, the present and the future is given en bloc’ (a general survey of the scientific work of Albert Einstein, pg 133). This remarkably is an understanding gained by the great Buddhist author DT Suzuki as he wrote ‘there is no space without time, no time without space; they are interpenetrating’ (Preface to Mahayana Buddhism, p. 33)We must therefore make two comments on this statement: firstly, our language is strained to express the reality experienced in the world of modern physics and in a similar ways the mystics through the ages have declared a similar limitation in their experience of reality; and secondly, that our concept of time is more illusionary than we might have imagined and there is a comparison to the teachings of many religions on this point.

For now, we will focus on the later of these two comments - the concept of time – while exploring the theme of language throughout the rest of the essay. In many of the main Eastern religions, time as we think of it does not exist in their understanding of reality. The great Buddhist Philosopher, Nagarjuna, said ‘it was taught by the Buddha, oh monks, that... the past, the future, physical space... and individuals are nothing but names, forms of thought, words of common usage, merely superficial realities.’ Hui-neug said that ‘the absolute tranquillity is the present moment’ (Quoted in The way of Zen, AW Watts, pg. 201). The Zen Master Dogen went further saying that time stays where it is (quoted from Selling Water by the River, J. Kennett p.140), Govinda said that ‘vision is bound up with a space of higher dimension and therefore timeless.’ It is here we might start to see a link in language to Christian expressions on heaven.

In Christian Theology, God is seen to be outside of time, but not separate from it. CS Lewis explains this in Mere Christianity (pg 170) saying, ‘suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call ‘tomorrow’ is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call ‘today’. All the days are ‘Now’ for Him.’. The Christian is not proposing a distant God who doesn’t understand time, for time is part of His creation and the Christian believes God intervened in our time and space in a very real way in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Differences between Christian denominations in understanding the nature of God and time are crucial in understanding differences in doctrines surrounding freewill and predestination. However, most Christians will see time as a construct of God’s design, in evidence thereof they will refer to Genesis chapter one’s creation of sun and moon which are instruments of time, or to psalm 90 ‘A thousand years in your sight are like a yesterday’. Yet it remains difficult to articulate a comprehensive understanding to this question, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains ‘our human words always falls short of the glory of God’ (CCC 42). Perhaps, the latest understanding in the world of particle physics can aid our use of language and grasp of God’s relation to time and by extension His whole creation. 

Moving away from the topic of time, let us now consider one of the more commonly known quantum phenomenon. Light acts as a wave when passing through two narrow slits, causing standard interference patterns as peak and troughs meet from the separate light waves passing through each split. However, light cannot be behaving as a wave when it is used to excite electrons. In order to excite and electron enough energy must be provided for it to move into a higher energy level by overcoming the attraction of the electron to the protons found in the nucleus – a discrete amount of energy is required to do this. However it was shown that certain low wavelengths of light would have no effect on the electrons in certain metals – however if light was a wave then if the intensity was high enough or persistent enough eventually enough energy would be available to liberate the electron – this was not the case. Hence light must be understood in this case to be behaving as a particle with a discrete and certain amount of energy. (We now understand light to move in packets of waves called photons.) This is known as wave-particle duality, and is also found in electrons. This apparent unity of opposing natures could again be compared to the Christian Incarnation doctrine, whereby Jesus Christ is held as fully God while at the same time fully human (the hypo-static union). Often Zen masters would often employ koans – paradoxical riddles – as a means leading to enlightenment for their students. In many respects wave-particle duality was a koan for the physicists to solve to move belong a regimented and mechanical worldview to a fuller appreciation of reality. 

We mentioned the famous double-slit experiment above, but this experiment was more troubling to the scientific model of reality than one might originally suspect. It not only provided evidence of the wave-particle duality but something much more unexpected. Taking the example of electrons, when they are fired towards a object with two slits and interference pattern is observed – showing electrons behaving as waves. Even electrons beings launched one at a time through the slits show an interference pattern, showing that the single electron must pass through both slits and interfere with itself. But what is most striking is that when attempts were made to observe the electron at the point of the slit, the electron passed through a single spit and multiple electrons would not produce an interference pattern. The act of observing changed the results. Science can no longer consider that it is a neutral, disinterested observer. In the same way the eastern mystics will claim they are affecting the reality they experience in their meditation. The Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, says as much, ‘In the relative world the knower is different from the known, but in the Absolute Truth both the knower and the known are one and the same thing.’ (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 1.2.11). For the mystic, their experience of reality is one that must sometimes go beyond the apparent rational facts, but to accepting a truth based on a revelation of a higher, absolute dimension (whether this is through enlightenment or written doctrines of their religion). Faith and reason must go hand in hand in religion (as taught by Blessed Pope John Paul II in his letter Fides et Ratio), but at this stage in quantum mechanics the physicist must too accept things beyond his reasonable calculations based on personal experience and judgement. 

As we have shown, time is relative to the observer, and the effect of being observed can actually change the behaviour of certain particles at a sub-atomic level. It is no longer fitting to suggest that the observer can be separated from the subject because some relation always exists between them. A Cartesian division of the mind (res cognitans) and of matter (res extensa) is thus abandoned. Even at an atomic level, we must conclude that the universe is very samey. Every object is just a combination of 118 (known) chemical elements, and each element is just formed by a different combination of protons neutrons and electrons. Even the proton and neutron are just different combinations of up and down quarks. A unity of matter exists in its common elementary particles. Each one of the particles interacts with other particles – physical collisions, electrostatic attraction, gravitational attraction, strong nuclear force are all involved. Buddhist philosophy speaks of the fundamental unity of all things, as Ashvaghosa says in The awakening of Faith (pg 78), ‘When the mind is disturbed , the multiplicity of things is produced, but when the mind is quieted, the multiplicity of things disappears’. Sometimes this is expressed as Suchess in Buddhism which Aśvaghoṣa explains as ‘the oneness of the totality of all things, the great all-including whole’. In Hinduism, a similar unity is called Brahman. What is seen here is that a mystical experiential understanding of reality has lead to concepts such as utter unity of mind and matter, and even to propose our understanding of time is flawed; these general principles common to much of Eastern mystical tradition now are found to be common in the world of quantum mechanics. 

We do not suggest that science is found to be redundant, as if all it sought to discover had been known for centuries by the mystics. On the contrary, we want to show the profound lack of conflict between these fields and how they can be tools to each others advancement. The two fields might help to refine the limitations of our language in order to better express their worldview, or simply provide analogies to help conceptualize particular principles. The fields will remain distinct, because mystics (as the name suggests) do not attempt to explain the mysteries they discover whereas science will use its experimental methods to attempt to model and explain the discoveries it makes. The methodology of science is completely different to mystical practices. However, this doesn’t make these comparisons null and void; there is a valid argument that both fields are seeking absolute truths or an objective reality. The worth of the parallels is taught by the great 20th century physicist Werner Heisenburg suggesting that the exists ‘a certain relationship between philosophical ideas in the tradition of the far east and the philosophical substance of quantum theory’. As Heisenburg put it, ‘the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet’ (Physics and Philosophy: the Revolution of Modern Science (1959), 161)

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