Quantum Physics and Consciousness

Quantum physics helps to demolish the picture of laws of nature as wholly objective, all-determining forces, weaving a closed and inflexible causal web that none can escape. The interpretation of quantum physics is very controversial, but virtually all agree that electrons are probability waves in a multidimensional abstract "space" that take precise position only when experimentally constrained and measured.

The "measurement problem" is a wholly unresolved area of quantum interpretation, but it establishes that the world of specifically locatable point particles with rigidly designatable properties that we used to postulate in physics has disappeared. The real world, as it exists unobserved, or at least unmeasured by our apparatus, does not consist of such particles. It seems to consist of smeared-out, wave-like entities that half-exist in a number of different states (superpositions).

Furthermore, those waves are entangled in complex ways, which we can express mathematically but can hardly begin to imagine. There is a reality that mathematics represents without picturing. As to what really exists, we do not know. But our mathematical models work. "Description" has now been pressed to its furthest extent. The quantum physicist is not describing in the sense that a painter copies what he sees. The physicist is constructing elegant mathematical relationships, using numbers that do not correspond one-to-one with objective entities but that provide a nonpicturing model of a hidden but real world of fields and forces.

Mathematical description has passed into mathematical modeling, rooted in and confirmed by experimental observations but no longer simply setting down what is weighed and counted. In the strange quantum world, mathematics has the form of description, but exactly how the mathematics is to be interpreted—what its terms correspond to in reality—remains hidden.

The laws of nature do not make things happen. They describe the regularities of events, but they do not "make" or bring into existence anything. In quantum physics, they construct models of an intelligible world of supreme intellectual beauty but remain agnostic about the precise nature of the objective reality that lies veiled and always beyond their formulae.

A Creative Power brings things into being. Why should this power always conform to our mathematical descriptions or be forced to travel always on the railway lines of enforced regularity? There is a place for regularity. Our world would be incomprehensible and unlivable without it. But there is also a place for creativity, for the new and unexpected, for what goes beyond all the descriptions of what has gone before. Quantum physics suggests a model of the cosmos as a probabilistic, holistic, entangled, flexible reality that is far from the predesignated tram lines of the Newtonian model.

But what has all this to do with supernatural causes? Well, it may put the supernatural in a rather different light. God need not be conceived as a pure spirit quite outside the physical world, having to interfere with its mechanism from time to time. The cosmos itself may have a form of intelligibility that is intrinsically open to the creative influence of a more-than-physical reality. Isaac Newton believed that space and time were the "sensoria" of God. Quantum physics makes even more plausible the supposition that our physical reality, replete with intellectual beauty and intelligibility, with both mathematical regularity and emergent creativity, is one finite expression of a supreme underlying Spiritual Reality.

I do not think there is any question of quantum physics' "proving" God. It can be given a perfectly naturalistic interpretation—or it need not be interpreted at all! But it does raise deep and unresolved questions about the ultimate nature of physical reality. It puts a question mark against the belief that there is one solid physical reality of more-or-less ordinary but very small objects and that, in this reality, consciousness, value, and purpose are problematic and causally irrelevant ideas that need to be explained away.

According to the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum physics, the Copenhagen interpretation, what we know of fundamental physical reality is the relation between elementary particles, a specific measuring apparatus devised by an observer, and an observing consciousness. The dynamic properties of electrons, such as position and direction of travel, do not exist until they are produced by what Niels Bohr called "the entire measurement situation." No doubt something exists, but it is consciousness of the everyday phenomenal world that gives electrons precise position and momentum.

Consciousness changes reality, and, for some quantum theorists, like Henry Stapp, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann, it creates reality or, at least, some of the important properties of reality. In such a mysterious field as quantum physics, it would be unwise to pick out one interpretation as the correct one, when theories will probably change very rapidly. Nevertheless, for a quantum physicist it is hard to dismiss the possibility that, as Eugene Wigner put it, "The content of consciousness is an ultimate reality" (1983, 181).

In some way, the world of which we are ordinarily conscious, which includes seeing electrons as specks on a screen, is different in kind from the unobserved world represented by wave functions and Schrodinger equations. We might say that the quantum world does not really exist (one version of the Copenhagen interpretation) or that it exists as a world of "potencies" (to use Heisenberg's term), or that it exists as a superposition of all possible states (the Hugh Everett many-worlds theory) or that it exists as an undivided whole (David Bohm's "implicate-order" theory). In any case, it seems to be human consciousness that is a constituent and fundamental element of the world as we see it. Without consciousness, the perceived world would not exist as it does. This implies that consciousness is not just a by-product of matter as we perceive it. The material world as it appears to us is, at least in part, a product of consciousness.

No one (or, to be careful, I should say virtually no one) denies that human consciousness has a neural substratum that is the causal basis of its existence. No one denies that human consciousness is a very late arrival on the cosmic scene. But quantum theory suggests that human consciousness is a genuinely new and distinct reality, which gives a radically new character to observed physical reality.

The world as it appears to consciousness is not reducible to some basic level of purely material reality. Reductionism is not just wrong; it contradicts the best scientific evidence. Furthermore, the world as it appears to human consciousness is a world in which persons conceive and evaluate possibilities, make free and creative decisions, and primarily relate to their environment and to others in positive or negative affective ways.

The world in which humans exist is not a world solely of measurable and mathematically describable regularities. It is a world of evaluations, decisions, and purposes that are not precisely measurable or regular but that are explicable in terms of selection from a range of possibilities for the sake of enjoying some perceived value. It is, in short, a personal world, a world in which nonphysical causality (causality in terms of value and purpose, not in terms of quantity and regularity) plays a major role.

Any adequate account of causality must give an account of the laws of nature that permits nonphysical causality to play a positive role. If that is so, then the question of whether there is nonhuman, nonphysical causality is a question of fact (though not of scientific fact, if science is strictly defined in terms of publicly observable and repeatable data).

If consciousness is a basic and irreducible element of reality, then a Cosmic Consciousness—conceiving possibles, evaluating and selecting actual states for the sake of value, and not being causally dependent on any physical substratum—becomes a more plausible and attractive idea. It is an extrapolation from personal causality, but that does not make it unduly anthropomorphic since humans do not exhibit such a non-embodied, all-inclusive, and purely rational form of consciousness. The thought that human consciousness is not just a by-product of material processes suggests the possibility that some form of consciousness may be fundamental to the existence of matter itself.

Science makes a difference to how such a possible Cosmic Consciousness is conceived. The picture of an extracosmic person who could do absolutely anything must be replaced by the model of a perfectly realized consciousness, the acts of which are constrained by the laws of regularity and freedom that enable a cosmos of physically embodied and emergent persons to exist.

A supernatural cause acts wherever some human mind is brought to know the nature or purpose of a more-than-human Spiritual Reality or to feel guidance to a specific course of action and is helped to pursue that course. Despite the fact that there are many errors and misperceptions in religion, as in every area of human knowledge, it is reasonable for a person who guards against such errors as carefully as possible to believe that there is a form of Objective Spiritual Causality or that there is divine guidance and inspiration in the universe.

Science may lead someone to think that there is a vast Intelligence underlying the universe. It will be personal experience that leads someone to think there is a personal God or a spiritual law of cosmic justice. Science can help to construct a reasonable and coherent account of such a Spiritual Reality. But it will probably be an acceptance of the existence of consciousness and personal causality as an irreducible element of reality and of a belief that such a personal causality, which is not just that of other finite persons, has been experienced that opens the way to thinking of a personal God.

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