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Beware Being Seduced by the Cool in Quantum

By Ralph Shikan Levinson

Entropy is often thought of as a measure of randomness, disorder and in information theory, ignorance. It seems to be on the one hand trivially statistical and on the other hand deeply embedded in our experience. The concept of entropy was originally developed for studying the thermodynamics of engines during the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Entropy is often thought of as the statistical likelihood that if there are more arrangements of a system (gas molecules in an engine, clothes on the floor) that are disordered (by whatever standard) than ordered, then disordered states are more likely to be what you find when you continue to observe the system.

We think of our experience as being in something we call “time.” That is, we expect a progression; we expect the room to get messier if we don’t make the effort to organize it, rather than neater, because there are many more ways for a room to be messy than neat. Engineers and physicists and chemists can’t ignore entropy when predicting the next state of a system. But that doesn’t mean entropy defines an entity, an essential part of reality, as being “time.” Some scientists think it does. I don’t. Neither do Robert Lanza and Bob Berman in their formulation of biocentrism. And as best as I can tell, neither does Dogen Zenji, who writes simply of Being Time, not progressively messy rooms.

I like that quantum mechanics is for the most part agnostic about time. Quantum mechanics is concerned with answering the question: What is the likelihood of a given state of a system when you next look? There is no definitive arrow of time.

Speaking of quantum mechanics and time, Richard A Muller, a physicist, recently wrote a book titled Now: The Physics of Time in which he comes to the same conclusion. So of course I like the book! Toward the end of the book he also takes a stand for having a soul, and even if Buddhists don’t usually go for fixed entitles like souls, Muller admits he doesn’t know what a soul is. He just thinks consciousness isn’t limited to being a brain function—it’s not just an “emergent” phenomenon of neurons.

There is a section of the book in which Muller writes about the worst theoretical prediction in science, and it was a result of the mathematics of the most beloved and trusted theory (except maybe relativity) in science: quantum mechanics. The prediction concerns dark energy and the speculation as to whether quantum vacuum fluctuations, the variations in energy and virtual particles demanded by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and seen experimentally, could explain the accelerating expansion of the universe we seem to observe. Instead of dark energy, this would be a kind of negative gravity that is also quite speculative but would better explain recent observations about the dynamics of space and galaxies at the scale of the visible universe. Well, the prediction of the magnitude of the effect of these quantum vacuum fluctuations on the expansion of the universe was off by a factor of 10 with 120 zeros after it. That is one big number! That isn’t just wrong—it’s bizarrely, sarcastically, profoundly, embarrassingly wrong.

Although quantum mechanics does describe some things exquisitely well, there is a reason that some scientists spend their careers on speculative mathematics such as string theory. These are the “anomalies” that have to be fudged. And while we can’t deny the wonderfully tantalizing hints about reality that quantum mechanics serves up to us, we have to remember it isn’t infallible. It is a reflection of the questions we ask. Ask the right ones, it gives great answers. Ask others, quantum mechanics gives answers that surprise and delight and tantalize. Ask still other questions, then follow the math, and you get total nonsense.

And that is my main point! So, you don’t get quantum mechanics? Well, you can’t get it! It is at its best a great tool, but for understanding reality, mind, consciousness and who you are, it offers just a peek. A peek that is important because it reminds us that the apparent solidity of linear time and space is not quite how it really is, that it is an illusion of our sureness, our expectations, of the scale we live in.

Now, somehow that last sentence was autocorrected, but I like it! I meant to write “illusion of our senses” and it spit out “sureness.” Both work, and maybe “an illusion of our sureness” is even more accurate!

Nobody really thinks science can give us a final answer that is experimentally validated. The energies that would be required to test most cutting-edge theories are not even close to feasible. But beyond the technical limitations, we are limited by our need for answers that fit our brains. No experiment can get outside “reality” to measure it. When we use our brains and our senses, we are tacitly demanding that the questions and answers fit our brains and senses!

Quantum mechanics, beyond how it helps us make better toys, is just a hint that what we perceive and measure is not how the cosmos really works. This is kind of liberating. How do you see the universe when you know that time and space and the nature of what you perceive is just the tiniest slice of the pie, and that perception is sometimes so wrong it is “not even wrong”? How crazy is it when science leads us to that precipice?

I am not so concerned with all of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, though I will read about them, share them, and get my mind blown by them. But they won’t ever prove anything without some uncertainty because they can’t ever be certain. And I don’t think that is just due to technical limitations, but also to limitations of what we can grasp with our senses, however expanded by technology. Observations in time and space, defined by time and space, like experiments performed in time and space, are dicey concepts at best.

But besides being mind-blowingly beautiful, elegant, interesting and of value in reminding us of our limitations, if nothing else, quantum mechanics reminds us how deep and profound and unanswerable by the intellect the very experience of existence is at its core.

At the same time, the fuzziness of quantum mechanics doesn’t give us permission to think that every silly delusion we can come up with is true or has equal probability of being true. But it does mean that it is a wild and crazy universe, and allowing yourself the freedom to explore the craziness, to embrace and transcend the craziness, to not be limited by the paucity of data, the lack of imagination, the concrete materialistic linear time and space thinking, might be a good idea. Certainly, going beyond the dictates of the metaphysics of scientists who disagree with each other (string theory, anyone?) seems a “reasonable” approach. Not that “reasonable” has all that much traction when we get to the level of quantum mechanics, horrible errors and unproven theories, whether string theories, multiple dimensions, branes, etc.

Remember that reason–the why’s and wherefores dictated by our brains and language–is very provincial, relating primarily to primates on the third rock from the sun! Still, we may not have to be totally limited by our current contingencies. At least, that’s my premise, and I think Zen, biocentrism and other non-dual paradigms lean in that direction.

We can be liberated by the quantum weirdness, and needn’t be limited by the limitations and definitions of what seems reasonable, which will change from one scientist to another.

I am talking about how we try to answer the BIG questions of our lives, and science won’t do that. It can approach it, but never reach it. It isn’t built for it.
The BIG questions are about you, your life, your death, your Mind. And while that entails quantum mechanics, it isn’t limited by it.

What is consciousness, your very experience of being, what it is like to be? Is that of necessity limited by our senses, by time and space, when time and space are themselves called into question by science, and our senses are limited and ultimately contingent and dispensable?

Cool as the quantum world is, as much as it is our world, it isn’t the whole story. Enjoy it, but don’t be seduced into thinking it will liberate you and answer your deepest questions.

You, however, are the whole story.

♦ ♦ ♦ ◊ ♦ ♦ ♦

First posted October 12, 2016 on Ralph Shikan Levinson’s website: ZenGut