Spirit, Science, Consciousness
What would it be like if we were aware of the assumptions we make about our world; about the distinctions and separations that guide us through our reality all the time, without us really being aware of them? Would being aware of these boundaries enable us to re-emerge into a place of possibility?
Every day we live in a world that has come to be known in a certain way because of all that has gone before. Modern science exists because of the ‘pre-modern’ science. In this essay, I am interested in what it might be like to live in a ‘post-modern’ science. Here, I mean ‘post-modern’ to be a way of thinking about the world that, instead of building higher and higher on the blocks of modern science, we become aware that the base block from which we have built all our subsequent investigations was only one possibility. So, if you imagine a tower of bricks; there are many possible bricks that can be the first one laid, we choose one and build on that block, adding more and more bricks. The tower takes form and gets higher and higher, and eventually so high that we forget that the entire tower is built on the foundation of one possibility. From this place, bricks of a different shape or size that come our way, are dismissed as wrong or faulty, but if we were able to climb down and see that there are many other possible towers that we could have built on a different base stone; each of which could have grown as tall and strong as ours, but which would have given us a very different perspective on the world.
During the Spirit, Science and Consciousness course I was introduced to the Tao Te Ching, the ancient, foundational text of Taoism (which will feature in this essay). I was struck by the many different translations available of the Book of Lao-tzu. Reading one interpretation, I had a thirst to read another – I wanted to gain a sense of the full meaning given by the original Chinese characters. So, I surrounded myself with numerous translations, comparing and contrasting one with another. Of course, I gained a sense of the commonalities they share, and this gave me a glimpse of the essence of the original wholeness, from which modern translations have chosen one path or other to convey a message behind each phrase. But, I felt a little cheated - I was being given an interpretation – the wholeness remaining hidden in the simple and elegant depth of the Chinese visual characters. In each translation of the Book of Lao-tzu there is a lengthy introduction or accompanying explanation justifying the method with which the authors have chosen to present this ancient text. This made me aware of the fundamental difference between our Western English language and that of the Chinese characters. As Alan Watts (1975) describes “it might seem that it is hard to be precise in Chinese, or to make those clear distinctions which are necessary for scientific analysis. On the one hand, however, Chinese has the peculiar advantage of being able to say many things at once and to mean all of them…it gives one to think.”
Our Western language inherently requires full expression of meaning for the sake of coherence. Thus, the numerous translations of the Tao Te Ching available, when read together sometimes seemingly convey very different messages, because we take the meaning of the words literally and linearly. One could then spend an entire lifetime’s work deliberating over the meaning behind one interpretation or another, forgetting that there is no conflict in the original text – to reiterate, the Chinese have the advantage to “say many things at once and mean all of them.” Yet, to the Western reader if we were to take one translation as a base stone and build a world of meaning on one of them, we could then mistakenly dismiss other interpretations as wrong; not realising that it is only our language, and therefore our world of reality, that is created on the idea that polarity is synonymous with opposition and conflict1.
This capacity for specificity and distinction is of value, and I am not for a moment idealising one way over another, but it does strike me that there is a lack of awareness that this is the process that we are in with modern science. We have travelled so far up the tower of modern science that we have forgotten that it is only one of many possible realities. Against the advice of Korzybski, the map has become the territory2 (1931).
Again to refer to the Science, Spirit and Consciousness course – many times the same questions were raised, what is science? What is spirit? What is consciousness? I observed that, following the end of the course, people commented that they were disappointed as they felt the issues of spirit and consciousness had not been addressed, but that the focus had been predominantly on science. However, my learning from the course was not about answering the ‘what is…’ questions, but rather an awareness raising that by even asking these questions we are taking an ontological leap; assuming that these are distinct topics to be investigated, in isolation or together, but either way that they are somehow already distinguished ‘things’. There is some‘thing’ defined as science, as spirit or as consciousness. From this premise, we have already laid quite a substantial base stone, from which we are now speaking of, and thinking, about the world. What if we go back up to the distinguishing of these topics – where was the act of differentiating science from spirit? Where did we decide that consciousness is a ‘thing’ or, as Shantena (Unpublished translation) describes it has been viewed, “as an epiphenomenon of certain material processes, an emergent property of the objective world that is generated when a nervous system with an adequate degree of complexity comes into being.” (p.15). This Cartesian split of mind and matter did not always exist, and does not dominate thought in other traditions of knowledge. The ‘pre-modern’ way knows nothing of a non-participatory world; there is no separation only flow and renewal.
“These rivers flow….they arise from the sea and flow into the sea….these rivers, while they are in the sea, do not know ‘I am this river’ or ‘I am that river’.” Chandogya Upanishads
Our modern science is based on the premise that there is an external, objective world, endowed with intrinsic properties, which we as observers simply take note of. This has enabled us to ‘objectively observe’ the world, creating our modern understanding of the laws of causality, which make up the basis for our classical physics. Thus, in classical physics observation and experiment report on the building blocks of life; allowing us to draw conclusions about the nature of the physical universe. However, quantum physics has thrown up some unexplainable phenomena (from the perspective of the classical physics tower) where it appears that the act of observation has a much more active role; even contributing to the very creation of our reality. In quantum physics, observation and experiment can only comment on the building blocks of the world in relation to the observer, which describes the nature of the observed universe. This is a radically different perspective and calls into question our entire relationship to the supposed ‘objective’ world – it was rejected with vehemence by classical physicists for many years, and still remains controversial. Interestingly, as Sabbadini describes “such a deep change in worldview is not easily assimilated: it requires an effort of the imagination going beyond habitual modes of thinking. It is not surprising, therefore, that almost a century after the inception of the theory this transformation has not seeped down into our everyday consciousness” (p.12).
To explain some of the evidence behind quantum theory; in contrast to classical physics where particles behave like, very small, but solid objects, in quantum physics particles can also behave like waves. The system, in this undefined potentiality, is called the ‘superposition of states’, where one ‘object’ can be in more than one place at the same time, which is totally ludicrous and impossible when viewed from the classical physics tower. Of course, we experience matter as solid, definable and constant – it does not exist to us in its superposition state. In quantum physics they were able to demonstrate through a series of experiments that the particle remains in its superposition of states (behaving like a wave) up until the point of observation, at which time it ‘chooses’ one of its states to be and thus is altered. Here is where the ‘problem’ for classical physics is situated; firstly, if the act of observation changes the nature of the particle – ‘collapsing’ it into a specific state, this contradicts our notion of matter, which supposedly exists completely independently of any observation. Secondly, if matter is a solid thing it can only have an effect on another ‘thing’ that is located in its physical proximity through some ‘signal’ propagating in space from one to the other, (Sabbadini, Unpublished translation). Whereas, in a model of the world where particles are not located in a constant place, effects can be non-localised, impacting on things that are seemingly not in physical proximity to the solid object, once defined.
So, here began the journey of many scientists investigating the quantum world and the act of observation on the ‘collapse’ of the wave function, from its superposition of states into a defined state. The quantum physicists debated what exactly it was that initiated this collapse of the wave function – was it the act of measurement or was it the action of a conscious observer? This was considered important and divided the quantum community into Materialists vs. Idealists. Those scientists favouring quantum idealism argue that the wave collapse occurs only when meeting a conscious observer. From this base stone, it gives cause for investigating the nature of this phenomenon of consciousness, which is now given primary position in the role of creating our reality. It also makes way for endless debates around how we define what has ‘sufficient’ consciousness in order to manifest this collapse of the wave function i.e. does an other-than-human being bestow this act of observation, or is it isolated to the realms of the human. If this perspective is posited, it can lead to another entire philosophy regarding the hierarchical nature of human evolution in regards to our capacity for complexity and consciousness, above that of other animals, which certainly for me is an unsavoury stance to take.
Disagreeing with this position, the quantum materialists argue that it is simply the act of measurement that collapses the wave function, which could in effect be conducted by experimental apparatus. This position then points us in the direction of again removing consciousness from the picture – as it is again taken away from the lived experience of the observer to the ‘objective’ act of observation, where life is not required. Many experiments have been carried out under the premise of delineating between these two positions, both of which take their ‘base stone’ as the idea that what quantum physics observes is the collapse of the wave function of a particle.
What is very interesting is that this understanding (the collapse of the wave function) is in contradiction with the basic equations of quantum physics. Shrödinger’s cat experiment (1935) is a useful thought experiment to work with in order to see why the collapse of the wave function is incompatible with the equations of quantum physics.
The experiment sees a cat in a box with a flask of poison. A hammer is positioned above the poison and should it fall down, the flask will be broken, the poison will be released and the cat will die, or the hammer remains up, the flask intact and the cat alive.
The experiment is set up so that the results of a single quantum event, such as the decay of an atom, determine the movement of the hammer for example if the atom decays the hammer falls down, and if the atom does not decay, the hammer stays up. Quantum physics posits that the superposition of states means that the hammer can be both hammer up and hammer down, which if we follow this through in the thought experiment, the flask is both whole and broken, and therefore the cat is both dead and alive3. The equation, delineated by the above scenario, where ‘a’ and ‘b’ denote the two possible outcomes, gives us the following result:
(a + b)(a + b) = a² + 2ab + b²
In this equation we can see that you get what is known as interference, denoted by the 2ab, where the cat is both alive and dead. This quantum problem of measurement is the awkward result of the mixed term where the cat is both alive and dead, which is in contradiction to the idea of the collapse of the wave function, because after the point of observation the superposition of states persists.. This problem has been traditionally dealt with in text books by decreeing that it simply isn’t there. This is, of course, not very satisfactory, and there have been other theories that have tried to deal with this non-collapse of the wave function to account for the persistence of this superposition state. For example, Everett (1957) posited the theory of multiple universes, where every possibility creates the alternative outcome in a parallel universe. However, again this theory intuitively feels somewhat clunky, and takes a leap of ‘faith’ to believe.
Just to orientate us on this journey; what is interesting here in the path of quantum physics is that at each place of possibility, a new theory emerges, and from that theory, or base stone, a whole new world of meaning is created. This is then taken and applied, drawing more conclusions about the world, which are only ever ‘true’ when all the preceding assumptions are taken as given.
Sabbadini discusses the issue of the quantum measurement problem and writes that in “seeking the solution at a more fundamental level means questioning the philosophical premises implicit in the formulation of the problem. When we do this we realise that in our physics there is still a basic ‘perspective error’…of an observer standing outside the world…” (p.15). This quotation is analogous, for me, with climbing down from the tower where we have assumed that there is an objective world, which is independent of us, and going back to the pre-distinguishing of matter and consciousness as two distinct ‘things’4. Sabbadini’s (2006) theory coined the ‘Persistence of Information’, explains this awkward persistence of the superposition of states by declaring that, indeed, it does not require the collapse of the wave function, rather that the possibilities persist, but where the particle being in one place affects something i.e. where there is a definite outcome from its being there, this act leaves a trace, and it is this moment where the distinguishing occurs between world and consciousness. “Symmetrically mind, or consciousness, comes into being through its experience of the world i.e. it also originates in the process of experience….the elementary core of the experience of the world is a process in which consciousness and world, mind and matter, and subject and object co-emerge from the undifferentiated non-dual background of existence.” (p.15). There is evidence to support this theory, which comes from the quantum eraser experiment, which demonstrates that even if a particle has ‘supposedly’ collapsed and chosen its end state, if the information related to the ‘outcome’ is destroyed, the possibilities of that very particle persist, and the particle is found again to be in its superposition state. (see Scully, Englert, and Walther, 1991)
Not only does the theory have supporting evidence from experimental data, but it also intuitively holds a simple elegance to it. When the implications of this theory are realised, it seems to (or at least did for me) hold a deep resonance – it does something (!) …it is where I deeply resonate with the idea that the superposition of states is not just all things being in all places at once, it is actually the pre-numerical, pre-distinction of any ‘thing’, where all is in a state of entanglement. It is in the act of experience that the divide between me and other occurs, which is where mind and matter are divided and where the potential ‘objective’ world comes into being, separated from us as observers able to investigate and draw conclusions. What I feel has happened is that modern science has actually created a reality, where this objective world is seen as being a ‘truth’, but it is actually just one possibility, one base stone upon which we have built and constructed our entire way of knowing. Thus, by asking what is science? What is spirit? What is consciousness? Is to already have ‘collapsed’ the potentiality of these from a superposition entangled state, to defined and separated things. From this place it is impossible to experience the oneness and wholeness that is alluded to by the pre-modern way of knowing, and that which is alluded to in the Tao Te Ching. This is why the following quotation from one translation of the Book of Lao-tzu resonates so deeply:
“Constantly without desire you may contemplate its wonder. Constantly having desire you may contemplate its boundaries.”
To live only in the state where we are defined, separated and observers on an objective world we will only contemplate the end of the boundaries of our ‘selves’. However, to dwell in the act of the coming into being of this state with which we are so familiar we can contemplate the wonder of the universe and see its many potentialities. Furthermore, from the ‘collapsed’ state non-local effects are nonsense, but when dwelling in the ‘superposition’ it makes sense that seemingly mystical events can occur. The I Ching, for example, another ancient Chinese text is based on the interface between yin and yang; chaos and order. This book has been traditionally consulted, seemingly giving mystical answers to unknowable events. Such divination is integral in Chinese culture, but totally dismissed as ridiculous in Western cultures.
Thus I wonder what potential we have, if we were able to know the assumptions that we have built our world on, and not be confined by them. I do not mean that we would have to avoid creating the ‘towers’ of knowledge, as these do indeed provide us with an elevated position from which to know our world, but to know that the level at which the base stone was placed holds great richness of possibility. The Chinese have this way of knowing integral in their language, and thus perhaps the ancient wisdom of the Taoist text is much more easily accessible to them than to a Westerner whose culture has predisposed them to search for definition and separation.
Perhaps we could learn something from not striving to continuously name the “unnameable dao”, but to dwell in the existential dimension where the “origin of heaven and earth” is the undifferentiated background of existence.
With special thanks to Shantena Sabbadini, teacher on the Science, Spirit and Consciousness course who brought these things together for me, and whilst I had planned and constructed the content of this essay prior to finding his paper The Daodejing Introduction,I subsequently found many of the same ideas contained in his paper, and I have therefore tried to reference accordingly.
Addiss S. & Lombardo, S. (Translators) (1993).Tao Te Ching Laotzu. Hackett Publishing Company: Cambridge.
Everett, H. (1957). Relative State Formulation of Quantum Mechanics. Reviews of Modern Physics 29: 454–462
Graham, A.C. (Translator) (1990). The Book of Lieh-Tzu: A Classic of Tao. Madala : London.
Korzybski (1931). Statement first appeared in a paper Korzybski presented before the American Mathematical society in New Orleans in 1931.
Sabbadini, S., A. (2006). Persistence of Information in the Quantum Measurement Problem. Physics Essays, Vol 19, (1), pp.135-150.
Sabbadini, S.A. Daodejing Introduction (English Translation). Available at (accessed 28th February 2012).
Schröndinger, E. (1935). Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik (The present situation in quantum mechanics). Naturwissenschaften
Watts, A. (1975). Tao: The Watercourse Way. Pelican Books: London.
1 Whereas in Chinese culture polarity as opposition or conflict is “as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that + and – are different aspects of the same system m and that the disappearance of one of the m would be the disappearance of the system” (Watts, 1975, p.20)
2 A re-formulation of Korzybski’s famous statement that “the map is not the territory”
3 The idealist understanding would be that things stay in this superposition state until a human observer opens the box and looks inside – in which hammer would go down and the cat would be dead, or the hammer would stay up and the cat would be alive – importantly, it would be ‘choosing’ a defined end state. However, it becomes tricky when assigned to the idea of conscious observation. So, for example, what would happen if someone opened the box but did not look inside, or someone took a polaroid picture of the inside but did not look until a month later. Meanwhile the cat has been walking around for a month; would by looking now reverse the history of time, and suddenly cause the cat to have died in the box?
4 Or perhaps better to say we are moving beyond the distinction of matter and consciousness as two distinct things, but rather being aware of the active process that we have engaged in which we have indoctrinated these as separate; where we are now questioning this very premise.