This is my one hundredth blog post, and to mark this occasion of metric conviviality, I’m going to indulge myself by writing some pseudo-intellectual philosophical bullshit entirely for my own amusement. Stay with me; it’ll be fun. Or roll your eyes and click away, whichever works for you.
Here’s the strange thing about quantum mechanics – NOBODY understands it. It presents us with a truly bizarre picture of reality, with mind-bending philosophical consequences. A lot of physicists (of which Einstein was one) wanted it to fuck off and die, but it remains the best description of the physical world currently available. Predictions derived from quantum theory can be verified to a very high degree of accuracy experimentally. It’s been around since the 1920s and hasn’t failed a test yet, but continues to baffle the world’s greatest minds.
The principle is simple enough to understand. A-level Physics students study the two slit experiment, which indicates that light can be described as both a wave and a particle, and behaves as one or the other depending on circumstances.
This is the gist of what happens in the experiment :
If you shine a light onto a screen through a pair of slits, you get a pattern of dark and light stripes. This means light behaves as a wave – some waves join forces to make bright bands on the screen, other waves cancel each other out to make dark bands. Exactly the same principle as ripples in a swimming pool.
If you close one of the slits, the light seems to pass through the single slit as a stream of particles, visible as dots on a screen if you’ve projected the light onto a photographic plate. So light is both a wave and particle… this duality is already kind of strange.
Here’s where things get very fucked up. If one of the slits is opened or closed AFTER an individual photon (which is the basic, irreducible unit of energy) has been fired through it, the photon seems to ‘know’ what happened – if the other slit is open, it behaves like a wave, if it’s closed, it behaves like a particle. But how does it know somebody’s looking? Nobody has a clue, it just seems to happen.
The Role of Consciousness in Creating the Material World
The reason physicists are so uncomfortable with quantum theory is that it implies there is no objective physical reality – in other words, consciousness seems to influence the material world. This is the ‘Copenhagen Interpretation’ of quantum theory – the observer influences the total experimental situation in such a way that the result of an experiment is determined by the act of measurement.
This would make a lot more sense if anybody understood what consciousness is. How does a squidgy grey lump of organic molecules create a colourful, three dimensional world containing a ‘self’? Nobody has the faintest idea, although hundreds of books written over hundreds of years have helped at least to clarify the questions. It’s almost certainly a phenomenon that’s arisen and developed to provide an evolutionary advantage, but there seems to be a ghost in the machine that can appreciate abstract concepts like beauty.
The Indian religions are broadly in accord with the insights of people who have taken large doses of psychedelics in thinking that all minds are one. The thing that’s in me experiencing life is the same thing that’s in you, your dog, and your fish. We differ only in perspective, genetic pre-dispositions, memories and expectations. The basic thing doing the experiencing is the same. Buddhism, for example, seeks to transcend ego in order to experience a state of pure being as a blank canvas with no expectations or worldly desires, like grass bending in the breeze. Going out there and tearing life a new one is exciting and exhilarating, but it helps not to lose sight of your ultimate insignificance.
Imagine an eternal spirit. Infinite, all powerful, the sum of the parts of the entire universe, with perfect knowledge. Contemplating its boredom, this eternal spirit decides that it doesn’t actually experience anything, it just ‘is’ everything. So it decides to find out what everything is, in the form of individual units of conscious life to experience everything it is possible to experience. Which is what we’re doing now. And when ‘we’ have experienced everything it is possible for us to experience, who knows. Or cares.
I find this a liberating idea. There’s no pressure to be something, or to achieve x y or z. There’s nothing judging you. If you hate someone, you’re just hating a different version of yourself. Be grateful for your present incarnation, and enjoy the ride. If you take your hands off the steering wheel, you seem paradoxically to be more creative, to invite more novelty into your life and to feel less anxious and stressed about everything. Here’s to letting go.