Our perspective of the world underwent an abrupt overhaul with the development and experimental validation of quantum mechanics, and like whorls in a cloud chamber flung from the site of a detonated photon, a legion of metaphysics spun-off from the diverse array of interpretations and suppositions the field inevitably engendered. I remember, vaguely, when I read The Dancing Wu Li Masters while taking high school physics. It was a sufficiently beautiful experience to propel me into a nearby university that fall as a declared physics major. After a successful year I decided to shift into engineering, thereby cutting my minimum required stay in academia by half, content in the fact that I could reflect upon the essential nature of the universe and of my self with a good book and a meditation cushion, with or without a PhD.
Today I feel vindicated in this regard.
I have also come to cringe when I see the admittedly mind-boggling quirks of physics used as explanations for the bedrock of identity and being, the existence of consciousness, or the freedom of will. I think that is a slippery slope, and that you cannot derive the glorious and timeless character of Rumi from a science that permits, within very narrow ranges, uncertainty, or that has demonstrated a “spooky” connectivity at a distance through entanglement. I think it is quite the other way around, and that we find within science the traces and patterns of the very essence of who we are. Connectivity, for instance, is primary. It is a given. It is real. And the phenomenon of quantum entanglement is but one of countless avenues through which the reality of connection reveals itself to us. Something vast and invisible is at play– not a he or she, not a God with a beard, not us alone and certainly not an other, not a thinking intelligence as we understand it, but a Love that gives of itself like a sunset, an apple, a human being, a blue bird, and two photons whose inter-being knows no distance.
It is in the spirit of the latter, as Creation being literally festooned with relics of its own innermost nature, that I love to poke around in the findings of science and consider the multiply-layered potential meanings of what is on display. As an example, a few years ago I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing physicist Mendel Sachs in his home– yes, I pretty much asked him to invite me, a stranger, into his home for a coffee table discussion of his work– and one of the great takeaways was his pointing out that Einstein chased after the theory of relativity out of an insistence on the notion that truth is true, and that if something happens in the universe, there must be a way to translate its appearance from any one reference frame into any another so that the two observers can ultimately agree on what occurred.
This is beautiful!
The theory of relativity is like a universal translation device, enabling two viewers of the same event with radically different relationships to it– e.g. diverse physical points in space, rates of motion towards or away from the event, etc.– to realize they agree completely, even though at face value they each witnessed something seemingly very different. The speed of light is constant because it is a mathematical necessity of the translation device, and time and space– which make sense only in their durations– are seen as a language for expressing what occurred, rather than reality itself. When the language is properly understood, the meaning in all reference frames is the same.
Recently I was thinking about quantum mechanics, and asking myself, what might this crazy branch of physical-theoretical phenomena be showing us?
The double-slit experiments, of which there are many forms, some of which are very intricate and could only be performed in the last decade due to advances in experimental technology, have as their beginning the behavior displayed when monochromatic light passes through two slits located close together. The light emerging from each slit diffracts to form an arc, like the ripples in a pond spreading out from a tossed stone. The two sets of ripples overlap– imagine two stones thrown at the same time– and when the light hits the far wall there are places where it is very bright, and places where it is very dim, since the light waves add together where they coincide and cancel each other out where one is a crest and the other a trough.
This is classical physics, not quantum physics. Now imagine the intensity of the light source is turned way down, and the wall is equipped with photodetectors. The photodetectors “click” when a single particle of light, a photon, hits them. What is observed is that the bands of light and dark we saw on the wall are the result of a shower of countless individual particles that, one-by-one, strike the detector in various places. The individual particles, en masse, construct perfectly the structure we had attributed to waves. This has been observed countless times as, click by click, as slow as you like, the interference pattern of the wave is reconstructed.
How is that possible? How is it that a single particle, which surely must travel through one slit or the other in a straight line, could wind up five or ten degrees off course? It appears that an individual particle somehow interferes with itself as if it were the original wave of light striking both slits, and forming the two sets of ripples and the subsequent interference pattern, and yet each photon ends up striking the photodetector at a single, discrete location. Each photon yields but a dot. It is the sum total of which over time yields an interference pattern.
This is difficult enough to comprehend, but the experiment becomes even more of an affront to common sense when a detector is placed at each slit to tag photons as they pass by. When these “marker detectors” are in place, the photons are indeed found passing through either one slit or the other, not both, as one might expect of a trustworthy little particle, but now the interference pattern on the final detector disappears! In its place, the photons all strike the photodetector in one of two relatively fixed locations, each the product of their respective slit, as if the photons are now flying through one slit or the other in a straight line for their target. The wavelike interference pattern has vanished.
To circle back to an earlier point regarding the spin-off metaphysics of quantum mechanics, at this point some would say the experiment demonstrates the way in which the notions of subject and observer break down in quantum mechanics, and even go so far as to suggest that human consciousness, through observation-participation, causes wave functions to collapse and thus interacts directly with reality. I think human consciousness is far more directly enmeshed with reality than by going around all day collapsing wave functions, but I think scientifically the experiment simply doesn’t support such a conclusion. A person standing in the room will see an interference pattern on the wall, regardless of what they are thinking, until the “marker” detectors are added to the experiment. Without the additional markers, the experimental behavior of the light will not change, no matter how much intentional wave collapsing your average person attempts to project upon the scene. I’m not suggesting such a miracle is impossible, but it’s not obvious from the mathematics of the theory… So it strikes me that the key to collapsing the wavelike behavior at each slit is the rearrangement of the experiment in such a way that different information is extracted from it. When we force the experiment to tell us which slit the photon took, it will. Otherwise, freed of such a constraint, it will dance for us.
What does this say about us and the nature of this universe?
I think for starters it reveals the way in which the individual and the whole are indelibly interwoven, and mutually supporting. The interference pattern observed in the double slit experiment is a wavelike behavior that, in quantum physics, arises as an emergent phenomena, constructed of the paths of countless individuals. When an individual particle allows itself to follow its own path, simultaneously responding to and embodying a relationship with the underlying field– by “interfering” with the underlying virtual wave– it follows a path that is at distinct, yet nonetheless integral to and revealing of the whole. Something unexpected arises encompassing all particles. There is an individual for every path, and from the relationship of every path to every other path, wholeness. Likewise, the path of each individual is informed by an interference with, or relationship to, each and every other path through the field– or said differently, through relationship to the whole itself. Each path is born of trust in being an individual, a trust which arises out of relationship to the whole.
For me the experiment also suggests that our insistence on measuring and judging the nature of our journey every step of the way collapses both individual and collective possibility, and impedes the natural unfolding of what we, as individuals and as a unified field, are desiring to express. When we insist on judging progress, on maintaining “normalcy”, and on controlling the trajectories of our lives by knowing where they are aimed, we close off our relationship to the unknown, lose touch with the other trajectories around us, and the whole pattern dies to uniformity and mediocrity. The end result is two disconnected patches of light, duality, an either-or existence. When our lives are informed by mystery and intuition, however, and we allow what is latent within us to emerge organically, we contribute to allowing a new and beautiful wholeness to emerge.
I think this is what Jesus meant in A Course of Love when he suggested that being ourselves, and making the unknown known through our very lives, would author a new world. A pattern will emerge on the wall, with each individual in his or her perfect place, each a unique and distinct arising of the entire field. This isn’t the product of effort… There are no measurements to be made… We simply respond to the relationship that binds us to every other, and to the whole. Together, we are a wave. The wave is all of us, together. Each one of us is a unique expression of the whole, and yet the whole is simultaneously all of us.