Physics as Metaphysics - Is there a quantum spirituality?

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Niccolo and Donkey
Physics as Metaphysics

Big Questions Online

Mark Vernon

January 6, 2011


The notion that physics might have metaphysical meaning for human beings is as old as physics itself. The ancient Greeks did natural philosophy not only to learn about the cosmos but also to learn about how to live. In the medieval period, Aristotelian cosmology became tightly knitted to Scholastic theology, causing all sorts of problems for Galileo when he sought to challenge it. And then in the early modern period, Newton’s discoveries led again to a reassessment of what it is to be human.

No less a figure than Einstein invoked the notion of what he called “ cosmic religion .” It would need to ask questions such as whether the universe is friendly towards us, the father of the new physics mused. And the new physics of the 20th century has certainly sparked a welter of speculation as to whether the meaning of life is written in the stars. Are the laws of nature transcendent, like God? Does the fine-tuning of various fundamental constants suggest that the universe is right for life, for us? Is consciousness as basic a feature of things as quarks and photons?

One of the best-known of the spiritualities that draw on the new physics was penned by physicist Fritjof Capra . In his 1975 popular classic The Tao of Physics , Capra relates a vision he had in the summer of 1969, as he stared out to sea from the beach of Santa Cruz. “I suddenly became aware of my whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance,” he recalls.

His use of the metaphor of dance stemmed from his knowledge of particle physics, which views matter as a flux of possibilities across fields of energy. Capra draws on one of the most familiar features of quantum physics: the wave-particle duality of light. If you look at it one way, light behaves like a wave. If you look at it another way, it is a particle. The suggestion is that we, as observers, are deeply implicated in the nature of things.

Further, as nothing can be both a wave and a particle, it looks as if the fundamental nature of things lies behind what the Templeton Prize-winning physicist Bernard d’Espagnat has called a “ veiled reality .” This conclusion seems to offer a way of synthesizing the activities of science and religion. As Capra continues: “Physicists explore levels of matter, mystics levels of mind. What their explorations have in common is that these levels, in both cases, lie beyond ordinary sense perception.”

Such ideas are very influential, and similar moves have been made by other figures seeking new kinds of spirituality, like the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and, more recently, the Episcopal priest Matthew Fox . You can get a feel for it from this remark by Teilhard: “The history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

Thus, today, it’s quite common to hear people reflecting that we’re all somehow connected, just like entangled quantum particles that remain linked even when they’re on opposites sides of the universe. Alternatively, there’s the growing spread of what has been called the Universe Story . It tells of the emergence of energy from the Big Bang, that formed the fundamental particles, that coalesced into the elements, that became the building block of the stars, that formed alongside planets, that are nurseries for life, which itself became consciousness, and then self-aware: in us, the universe can contemplate itself.

But does this quantum spirituality add up? A number of critiques can be pressed upon it.

For one thing, the science is itself in a state of flux. The Big Bang, out of which this extraordinary experiment in emergence supposedly came, is itself now widely questioned by physicists. Some prefer a “mega-verse” that continuously gives rise to new universes in a process called “eternal inflation.” Others are asking whether there’s actually a multiverse : our universe is just the one out of the billions that is right for life, and so the fine-tuning is a delusion. Others again, are developing models of a pulsating universe , which expands over the eons to such an extent that it “forgets” its size, and so begins all over again.

Quantum spiritualities can accommodate such developments in science — though a skeptic might observe that they are so nebulous, they could accommodate just about anything. Then again, Capra himself notes, “Many concepts we hold today will be replaced by a different set of concepts tomorrow.” But he believes the basic link between the scientific and the mystical traditions will be enforced, not diminished.

Another critique is the pick-and-choose nature of this cosmic religiosity. It emerges in a number of ways. For example, the entangled nature of quantum particles is highlighted to celebrate our connectedness. What’s overlooked, though, is the colossally destructive power of quantum particles too — the fissions and fusions that release the energy of nuclear weapons. The quantum world is not just a strange place. It’s a hideously violent place too. Spiritualities are wary of celebrating that.

The pickiness appears in other ways. Some advocates, for example, don’t actually like references to fine-tuning and human consciousness because they perceive it as anthropocentric — what is sometimes referred to as the anthropic principle , that the cosmos was designed for us. The fear is that this is a way of reasserting human dominance in the order of things, by declaring we are at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being. Ecologically-minded quantum writers seek something different: a spirituality that puts the planet first. They tend to overlook the priority some interpretations of quantum mechanics give to us observers.

The conclusion would seem to be that quantum spiritualities represent an à la carte approach to the science. It’s not the science that’s driving the spirituality. Rather, the science is being mined and filleted for metaphors and analogies that fit a pre-existing sense of things.

In fact, it ever was thus. When Isaac Newton published his theory of gravity, it was not just astronomers that grew excited. Astrologers did too. The theory of gravity said that bodies act upon one another over vast distances. Isn’t this precisely what astrology had long taught — that the alignment of the planets and stars at your birth had a profound and subtle effect upon the body of the newborn? Newton was saying no such thing, of course. But that did not stop quacks running away with his ideas.

So, I don’t think there is such a thing as quantum spirituality. Instead, there’s quantum physics and then there’s the human quest for meaning. They are distinct enterprises. We gain from both. But throwing them together in a spiritual mash-up creates a spiritual mess. Spirituality is not only about the search for rich metaphors. It’s also about the struggle for fine discernment. The bizarre world of quantum physics teaches us that, too: it is extraordinarily hard to interpret the cosmos aright.

Mark Vernon is a journalist, writer, and former Anglican priest. His books include The Meaning of Friendship , Plato's Podcasts: The Ancients' Guide to Modern Living , and After Atheism: Science, Religion, and the Meaning of Life . He blogs at .