From Quanta to Qualia: What Nature Is Really Telling Us
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on October 17, 2012
By Deepak Chopra, Author, ‘Spiritual Solutions’; founder, The Chopra Foundation
Co-written with Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.
What would it take to make the universe a living thing? What would it take to make it human once again, a secure home for us instead of a cold, meaningless place? What would it take to give God a future? As disconnected as these questions may seem, they are on the minds of some farseeing thinkers. And the deeper one looks, the more it appears that all three issues — a living universe, a human universe and a universe that holds a place for God — start to merge. If they actually do merge, nothing will ever be the same again. Not just science but everyday existence will be completely overturned.
There have been great physicists who were deeply religious, such as Sir Isaac Newton, or who had a religious feeling when confronting the universe, such as Albert Einstein, but God isn’t the right place to start with these huge issues. God, in fact, is a red herring. No matter who or what created the universe, it’s here now, and we have to relate to it. How? One of the oldest ideas, which can be found in every culture, holds that nature is a mirror. We relate to it by seeing ourselves, but not passively. Messages are constantly going back and forth about birth and death, about constant change and the bond between our life and nature itself. To the ancients a natural disaster — fire, flood or earthquake — showed that nature was angry. If nature was appeased, the harvest was good and the sun shone. It was unquestioned that the universe meant something, and usually it meant that a loving deity had created a special place for his children.
It’s astonishing how quickly a timeless worldview was utterly destroyed by science. The demolition project that included Darwin, Freud, Einstein and all the other quantum pioneers doesn’t need retracting. We relate to a completely mechanistic universe devoid of purpose, one that operates through random chance, perfectly meshed with evolution operating through random genetic mutations. The mirror has shattered. We no longer see ourselves, because there’s nothing meaningful to see, no purpose, no creator. Even more absurd is the notion that nature is sending us messages; from the collision of quarks to the collision of galaxies, nothing is happening “out there” to reflect human existence.
It would be ironic if quantum physics demolished its own conclusions, because more than any other science, quantum physics delivered nature to its present state as random and meaningless. Solid physical objects became clouds of invisible energy, the certainty of cause-and-effect turned into “probability waves,” and time and space became flexible, to the point that a cubic centimeter of empty space contains enormous virtual energy while the arrow of time can turn on itself and go backward. The reliable world of the five senses was undercut by the quantum world, where nothing known to the five senses holds true. It seems totally impossible that the gap between the two worlds could ever be closed.
Yet it can’t remain open, either. Human life is meaningful, not random. It is filled with purpose, intelligence, creativity and values like love and compassion. If you start at the quantum level, you can’t get there from here. No one has explained how matter and energy acquired purpose, meaning and all the rest; we are a species with no foundation. We can only relate to the mindless cosmos with a shrug of the shoulders. Electrons and hydrogen atoms floating in the bleakness of outer space bear no resemblance to the electrons and hydrogen atoms in your brain. Their random activity somehow turned into the most orderly, intelligent, creative activity in the known universe. How?
Let’s say we want to take this question personally instead of leaving it to professional scientists. Reality is an interesting topic, but it becomes a fascinating topic when it’s your personal reality. If you knew where your own intelligence came from, why you are alive, where you are going and what the next leap in your evolution will be, everything would change for you. In their pursuit of a Theory of Everything, the holy grail of modern physics, scientists neglected a Theory of Me, an explanation for why each of us matters. That, in a nutshell, is what’s at stake.
We are immensely excited by a new science that can fill the gap created by the quantum revolution, which we call qualia science. The word “quantum” was plucked from the Latin dictionary to give the strange new world of subatomic physics a tag. In the same way “qualia,” which is Latin for “qualities,” is a tag for a world that is as far-reaching as quantum physics but pointing in the opposite direction. Quanta are “packets” of energy, an innocuous term that wound up having explosive effects. Qualia are the everyday qualities of experience — light, sound, color, shape, texture — whose explosive effects are barely hinted at.
You experience the world as qualia. It’s the glue that holds the five senses together. The scent of a rose is a qualia (we’ll use singular and plural as the same word); so is its velvety texture and crimson color. Looking at everyday experience through the perspective of the brain, psychiatrist and neural theorist Daniel Siegel reduced reality “in here” to SIFT: sensation, image, feeling, thought. No matter what’s happening to you right this minute, your brain is registering either a sensation (“I’m hot,” “This room is stuffy,” “The bed sheets are soft”), an image (“The sunset is brilliant,” “I see my grandmother’s face in my mind’s eye,” “My keys are on the dining-room table”), a feeling (“I’m pretty happy,” “Losing my job makes me worried,” “I love my kids”) or a thought (“I’m planning a vacation,” “I just read an interesting article,” “I wonder what’s for dinner”).
Qualia are everywhere. Nothing can happen without them, which means that if you see the universe using a human brain, reality consists of qualia. If there is a reality that exists outside what we perceive, it is inconceivable, literally. Once you subtract everything you can sense, imagine, feel or think about, there’s nothing. Because qualia are subjective, they directly attack the objectivity of modern science. Because experience is meaningful, qualia attack the model of random, meaningless nature. Yet even more is at stake.
Because the only way we know reality is through experience, qualia, not quanta, are the building blocks of nature. Quantum physics undercut the notion of solid physical objects while attempting to retain the physical universe. Qualia science says that this is a cheat. The physical universe needs to be tossed out as a frame of reference.
In its most outrageous claim, qualia science declares that only subjectivity is reliable. So-called objective measurements are a disguise for the total fluidity of experience. The universe we carefully measure is merely the reflection of the human nervous system. Even a diehard materialist (the preferred term is now “physicalist”) like Stephen Hawking, who has no doubt that the universe exists “out there” as a given, admits that science doesn’t describe reality. Science measures things and events to deliver data according to a mathematical scheme. Another physicist, Freeman Dyson, says, “Life may have succeeded against all odds in molding a universe to its purposes.”
There is the key: We have created a human universe. Behind the mask of a cosmic machine whose parts can be calculated and tinkered with, the universe is humanized. There is no other way it can exist, in fact, because nothing “out there” can be experienced except in our own consciousness. We are following the trail pioneered by the British physicist David Bohm, among others, when he wrote, “In some sense man is a microcosm of the universe; therefore what man is, is a clue to the universe.”
The mirror of nature is back, in other words. Strangely, by dismantling the certainty of time, space, physical objects and cause and effect, quantum physics paved the way for a paradigm shift it could never have predicted. The cosmos have meaning, as we wish to show in the next few posts.
To be continued…
Deepak Chopra, M.D., F.A.C.P., is the author of God: A Story of Revelation (HarperOne). Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., is Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics at Chapman University and co-author, with Deepak Chopra, of the forthcoming book Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles (Harmony). Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., is Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and co-author, with Deepak Chopra, of the forthcoming book Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness and Spiritual Well-Being (Harmony). For more, visit deepakchopra.com.