Quantum Conundrum

How do we know the dancer from the dance?

- W. B. Yeats

Albert Einstein came to regard quantum theory much the same way Dr. Frankenstein viewed the monster he had unloosed on the world.  Einstein won the Nobel Prize for a paper published in 1905 that offered a mathematical explanation of the photoelectric effect, which involved the emission of electrons when electromagnetic radiation was absorbed by a metallic surface.  According to Einstein, the electromagnetic radiation interacted with the electrons as discrete quanta of light, behaving like particles rather than waves.  He thereby set the stage for a view of reality at the subatomic level that confounded every tenet of classical mechanics.  In the quantum realm, causes do not produce pre-determined effects, only probabilities; an object cannot have a fixed position and velocity, at least not at the same time; and atoms can simultaneously spin clockwise and counterclockwise.  "No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this," Einstein complained in paper he wrote in 1935 with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen.  Even Nils Bohr, one of quantum theory's leading proponents, observed that "anyone who is not shocked by quantum mechanics has not fully understood it."

In attempting to describe the quantum realm, Bohr and other theorists found themselves struggling against the limits of everyday language.  The differentiation between subject and object found in Indo-European languages has no correspondence in the quantum world, nor is there a distinction between a doer and a deed.  To say "I hit the ball," as we do in normal speech, is to describe a reality in which a subject "I" performs a discrete action upon a separate object.  In the quantum realm, there are no discrete actions or separate objects, only an indivisible whole.  Even the distinction between observer and perception is erased.  Quantum reality is all verbs and no nouns.

What Einstein found most troubling about quantum theory is that it appeared to deny the existence of a reality independent of an observer.  “No theory of reality compatible with quantum theory can require spatially separate events to be independent,” wrote J. S. Bell, a leading quantum theorist.  In one breathtaking stroke, Bell brought down the whole edifice of Western science based on empirical observation.  Does this mean we create our own reality, as some New Age types like to think?  Not exactly.  Such statements merely recapitulate the duality of subject and object that dissolve in the quantum realm.  “The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived,” said Erwin Schrödinger, another pioneering quantum physicist.  “Subject and object are only one.”

Although quantum effects have only been measured at the subatomic level, there is no reason why they should not also be manifest in the larger world.  So why haven’t they? The short answer is that they have.  Mystics have been telling us for thousands of years that the world is indivisible and that our sense of separateness is an illusion; quantum physicists have merely arrived at the same destination by a different route.  There is nothing intrinsic to everyday reality that prevents us from seeing its underlying unity.  We are cut off from the world by our words.  As the linguist Benjamin Whorf has observed, our fundamental concepts of reality are embedded in the structure of our language.  We see the world in dualistic terms because we literally can’t think about it any other way. 

The route mystics take to their destination usually involves some method of sidestepping the thoughts that prevent us from seeing the world as it is.  Buddhists speak of “naked mind,” a state of receptiveness without preconceptions.   Jesus told his disciples they must receive the kingdom of God like a child in order to enter it and likened the experience to being born anew.  When I am fully absorbed in seeing, I have no sense of being on the inside looking out.  I have no sense of “I” at all or of anything apart from what is seen.  There is no sense of "there" apart from "here," "then" apart from "now," "you" apart from "me" or "me" apart from "God."  It is all one.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality 
Mark 10:15 
John 3:3           

Home | Readings
© Copyright 2004-2020 by Eric Rennie
All Rights Reserved